14 February 2017

Trust, facts, and truth #nlpoli

Trust is the foundation of any strong relationship.  That's why a great many journalists, troubled at the decline of their industry, emphasise the importance of trust in re-establishing a solid relationship between the news media and the folks who used to be their captive market.

Canadian and American news media are in a comparable position of trust with their respective audiences.  A 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 22% of Americans have a lot of trust in local news organizations and 60% said they had some trust. (82% total) National media fared a little worse:  only 18% of respondents trusted them a lot while 59% had some trust in national media. (77%)

In its 2016 survey on Canadians and trust, Environics found that 44% of respondents trust Canada's conventional news media as an industry. About 50% said that editorial content - either major conventional media or online news sites - was their first choice as a source of information. Fully 53% picked the websites of major conventional news media as their first choice for information online.

Neither Canadians nor Americans are particularly inclined to trust social media. Pew found that only four percent of Americans trusted social media a lot. 30% trusted social media somewhat as a source of information.  Environics found that 31% of Canadians used their Facebook news feed as the first, second, or third preferred source for current news.  Only eight percent of that was as a first choice.  Bloggers: 14% in total and only three percent as a first choice for current news.

Conventional news media:  69% of Canadians want their news from them, with 38% ranking it as their first choice for current news.

So there you have it, journalists. The numbers aren't directly comparable but there's enough pf a similarity to come to the conclusion that Captain Sweatpants is not eating your lunch on either side of the border.

If news organizations are seeing a drop in audiences, it isn't because people don't trust them, even just somewhat. And there's no reason to believe that online media like bloggers have captured their attention in place of conventional media.  Well, not unless people are lying to pollsters or the pollsters are speaking to a very small and entirely unrepresentative sample of Canadians or Americans.

The drop in revenue for conventional media is probably tied to a change in advertising.  The Public Policy Forum report The shattered mirror caught that detail, particularly with print media. The advent of online advertising sites like kajiji appears to have precipitated a spectacular and continuing decline in newspaper advertising revenue.  Electronic news media are usually one division of a much larger organization so the whole organization contributes to the bottom line.  Print media don't have that diverse a revenue base.  The results are in front of our faces as print newsrooms go through yet another round of layoffs that have largely not hit their electronic brethren to the same degree.

The decline in influence of conventional news media is a different matter.  People form opinions based on a variety of sources.  News media is just one.  If you look at Pew, Environics, or the research done for The shattered mirror,  you can see that people get information from several sources.  Friends and family are typically listed as being just behind news media as a trusted source or information.  They all go into the mix - with different weights of trustworthiness - as people form opinions.

Facts and truth

In mapping the future of news media,  some authors suggest that newsrooms must become ruthless advocates of facts.   Jennifer Maguire and Michel Cormier take that view in their article for Policy Options titled "The public broadcaster's role in the fake news era."    To fulfill CBC's mandate to "inform, enlighten, and entertain Canadians,"  the corporation must provide "comprehensive and critical coverage of local and provincial institutions from city hall to the courts and to legislatures."

The CBC and its journalists have a "responsibility to be beyond reproach when it comes to credibility."    As such,  they must "invest ever more in fact-checking,  in-depth reporting, and investigative journalism," say Maguire and Cormier.

Those are all noble goals.  They are sound principles for any news organization.  Canadians should support them fully since those principles are the reasons why people tend to trust conventional news media as sources of reliable information.  News organizations been particularly lucky in Canada to be part of an industry that hasn't seen scandals of the sort that have turned up in the United States.  Canadian journalists have not been outed for making up interviews, for example. Even in the quest for some way to stand out from the herd, Canadian journalists have not resorted to the extremes of American shock radio.

Canadian media will run into a very real problem of crediblity, though, if they think that they can be free of misinformation or that they present truth, that is facts, while there is some other group - Captain Sweatpants and his ilk  - who spread fake news and lies. The problem isn't that Captain Sweatpants is a fiction.  It's that conventional media don't produce objective truth  now and they are unlikely to be able to produce in the future.

That's because what makes news is influenced by many factors other than objective truth.  Sex, money, controversy, power, blood are all things that help determine where news organizations will cover.  They all need an audience so they will publish what people want to read, listen to, or watch. Ratings are a crucial factor, even at CBC, where numbers drive funding decisions.

And of course,  journalists and editors are very much part of the culture and community in which they operate.  What they believe to be true and factual will influence what they cover and how they cover it, even if what they believe isn't factual. They are not immune to believing alternative facts SRBP has been pointing this out for a dozen years and if it continued for a dozen more, we'd still be writing about alternative facts in the conventional news media.

The smelt poaching story is a good example of precisely the idea that the people who write the news come to it with the prejudices of the community in which they live and which they serve.   Both the Telegram and CBC published stories that weren't true, even though they had the facts in the story they ran that contradicted the bogus claim they presented as factual.  The folks in the newsrooms ran the story - earnest professionals though they are - because it fit the narrative long-established in their community.

We could dismiss it as a one-off, if we didn't have similar examples from the recent past. Over the past two years,  news outlets in Newfoundland and Labrador have written about austerity in a government that actually increased spending by 12% in each of two successive years.   In 2009 and 2010,  local and national media covered stories about the Quebec conspiracy to frustrate Newfoundland's ambition to develop Labrador hydro-electricity even though the evidence was plainly in front of them that showed it all to be nonsense.

In 2010,  they presented Muskrat Falls as a way to break the stranglehold Quebec had on Labrador hydro.  Local media reported it not just because government officials said it was the true reason for the project. They repeated the stranglehold claim as if it was a fact even though they had facts that contradicted the claim. They had all covered the 2009 sale of electricity to Emera wheeled through Quebec to the United States in which the same politicians that made the 2010 announcement said the Emera sale had broken Quebec's stranglehold.

Reporters aren't the only ones who fall victim to persistent false information.  Former Premier Roger Grimes, for example,  repeated the stranglehold claim in a talk to Memorial University students a couple of weeks ago.  University academics write about neo-liberalism in Newfoundland and Labrador, a philosophy that involves the withdrawal of the public sector from the economy in favour of the private sector. Precisely the opposite has been happening in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Lots of people in Newfoundland and Labrador believe that Confederation was a conspiracy. One of them wrote a book that is sold in the non-fiction section of bookstores across Canada even though the entire argument has long been refuted by professional historians and others. Others believe that successive federal governments have bartered Newfoundland resources for benefits to other parts of Canada. There's no evidence anything like it ever happened.

Facts don't stop people from believing things that aren't true.  Reporters are not immune to human nature. That doesn't mean reporters need to change their professional commitment to factual reporting.  That's what has earned them public trust.  That trust, though, won't pay the bills since Canadians are quite obviously not convinced that journalism is something they should pay for. They've been getting news for free from television and radio for so long they see no reason to pony up for it now that the Internet has made even more information available at no cost to them.

The media monopoly on information is over.  What is different now from a decade or so ago is that people have many more sources of good information.  The old days aren't coming back and reporters should stop wasting time trying to find a way of  getting back to a largely imaginary golden age.  The loss of the media monopoly on information has decreased their dominant influence on public opinion but that doesn't mean news organizations still don't play a key role in our communities.

Journalists need to keep doing what they have been doing.  Journalists and people interested in what they do just need to find a way to pay for their labour. It is valuable and Canadians would miss them if there weren't news writers around. We just have to find a way to pay for it, preferably one that doesn't involve diverting scarce tax dollars to prop it up.