It’s a widely known fact that, just like our politicians and those weird $1.99 containers of cold lasagne at Woolworths, Australians no longer trust the media.
BY Isobel Armstrong.
Instead, we now look to a wide range of online independent outlets and citizen journalists- probably because they’re not connected with the media in a corporate kind of way. But why?
One of the major causes of disintegrating trust in traditional media stems from the sort of hyper-critical late 2000s zeitgeist that contemporary citizens have inherited. The mutual, global feeling is that truth is a contrived illusion, what is fact today can be false tomorrow, and traditional authority is false and corrupt. The electorate is out of touch; the television keeps you occupied while the apocalypse rages on in the backyard. The world will end while we watch MTV. This feeling is what we collectively call postmodernism.
This kind of scepticism is not based solely on the postmodern belief that media services are under the control of special interest groups. It is based on the readily available knowledge that they are.
The most prominent example, of course, is the Murdoch-owned News Corporation and its role in outlet centralisation. This is essentially the process by which separate and alternative media outlets are gradually bought into an overarching syndicate. Since 1983, around 50 outlets have been whittled down to the present 2011 number of only six syndicates at the head of the entire media industry (GE, NewsCorp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS). Such is the illusion of choice.
Naturally, these ever-growing conglomerates diminish editorial independence. They also present a first-rate opportunity for slanting the same information across a cornucopia of different platforms, as is the case of the News Corporation’s slant towards the Liberal Party in Australia. Newspapers, news programs and radio news broadcast are constrained to presenting an adversarial game of politics, in which mainstream political ideas are the only political ideas. Do we only hear about Liberal and Labor because they have the most support, or Liberal and Labor have the most support because we only hear about them? The answer is telling for minor parties. According to a Crikey survey, 36% of Greens voters have “no trust at all” in talkback radio, 26% have “no trust at all” and 48% have “not much trust” in commercial media.
In his book The New Global Media, Robert McChesney says the global commercial media system is politically conservative because the media giants benefit significantly of the current social structure around the world.
“Any upheaval in property or social relations- particularly to the extent that it reduces the power of business- is not in their interest.”
Good examples of this motive are the recent Centrelink debt recovery controversy, or the Heirisson Island conflict. Media coverage of both events on Channels 7, 9, 10 and even ABC chose to reinforce the status quo of “dole-bludger hunting” and “illegal camping” respectively, rather than objective coverage of the relevant issues at hand.
As many media analysts argue, “the press has grown too close to the sources of power.” While the two continue to grow together, the liberal thinking public is looking back to ground level for something private, honest and unpolluted by corporate interest. Think MediaWatch and The Checkout. Catching out the mainstream has become a fun game in itself. Think web media- Pedestrian, VICE, and actual political magazines such as Green Left Weekly, and even “alt-right”, very nearly neo-Nazi media.
There’s a perception that, because it’s on the Internet, and because it’s not controlled by a corporation, it’s inherently more accurate news. Ironic, considering the Internet is the most unregulated form of media we have.
A 2009 Australian Communications and Media Authority survey found that, in reference to gathering news and information, the internet is not only more trusted but deemed to be more important. The study shows the proportion of users rating the internet as ‘very important’ (40.5%) is more than three times that for radio (13.0%) and newspapers (12.1%) around four times greater than for television (8.9%).
Traditional media workers are likely to place the blame on lazy consumers- the idea that, since the internet, nobody can be bothered buying and reading physical news, and there’s no point watching the 5 PM news if you’ve seen it all over Facebook during the day. However, some theorists say the revolution began long before the Web became popular.
Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow Michael Skoler writes that news conglomerates took over local papers and stations a few decades ago.
“Then they cut on-the-ground reporters, included more syndicated content from news services, and focused local coverage on storms, fires, crashes and crime to pad profit margins. The news became less local and less relevant, and reporters became less connected to their communities. Surveys show a steep drop in public trust in journalism occurring during the past 25 years.”
It’s those pesky catastrophe-milking profit margins that have driven people to searching for something personal, honest and unpolluted by corporate interest. While traditional media sources decide what the audience needs to know, Internet news has allowed us to customise our news-viewing experience. When the public determines what it wants to see and hear by navigating a plethora of websites, radio stations and independent papers, there is trust. When a traditional form of media such as the Murdoch-owned papers in The Daily Telegraph, The Herald Sun and The Courier-Mail assumes its readers in 3 different states need to know that a schoolboy claimed he was bullied by a Muslim mob for eating a salami sandwich during Ramadan, trust is diminished. For some.
There are numerous implications of the declining trust in traditional media, ranging from the catastrophic to the utopian. Some journalists and media trustees argue the continued rise of social media news is a death warrant for the industry standards of traditional journalism. Industry standards are non-binding to citizen journalists, and thus the four basic pillars- honesty, fairness, independence and respect- can be compromised without consequence.
This is not entirely true, and not entirely false either. The fact that the audience talks back to Internet media (ever read the comments on a PerthNow article?) means there’s technically more low-level regulation replacing the actual job of an editor. Institute of Politics fellow Joe Trippi says that when authors of weblogs write something erroneous, “thousands of people immediately begin criticising them, and they need to correct it within minutes. That’s something the New York Times can’t do.” On the other hand, the rise of Internet news does mean far more alternative perspectives are being embraced. Citizen journalism has been truly admirable in terms of overcoming censorship, correcting mainstream assumptions, and diversifying the traditional news palate. But honest, personal, unregulated media also means opinionated media. It’s a double edged sword.
The irony at the crux of this cultural shift is that we now place far more trust in the least trustworthy platform for information. No individual nor corporation can impede modernisation, so perhaps all effort should instead be diverted toward ensuring new media is more trustworthy, relevant and independent than its traditional counterpart was.