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With trust in the media at a new low, we must do more to communicate its importance

27 July 2020

By Jamie Williams, Senior Executive

Last week, a YovGov poll found that over 50 percent of GB adults in the UK now see the British media as a “force for bad.” This is the first time that the monthly tracker has found that the majority of the British public hold this view. And in the space of just eleven months, we have seen a shift from 43 to 53 percent taking this negative opinion.  

With a brief scroll through the Twitter feeds of the country’s leading journalists, you will find aggressive accusations of bias and frustration from followers and critics. By no means is this a British trend alone. Across western democracies, trust in the media has been on a long-term decline. The Oxford University Reuters Institute’s 2020 Digital News Report found that only 38 percent of the global population trust most news. To put this into perspective, the figure is only 28 percent in the UK. 

So, what has caused this overwhelming shift? It is no surprise that the Reuters report shows that those politically divided societies appear to trust the media less. When the media reflect polarised views, even in a balanced way, they will naturally be reflecting deeply divisive and dividing viewpoints. When you analyse the data breakdowns in the YouGov poll it reveals some of that fissure. The shift in sentiment over the last year toward a lack of trust in the media has come overwhelmingly from Conservative voters. One Conservative supporter told me last week that he was “sick” of the poor quality of questions from journalists in the Government’s daily press conferences. According to many on Twitter, the level of questioning has been more harmful to trust in the media. 

As a country, we must do more to champion the important role of the media in democratic society. Those that work within and with the media need to support that effort. There is no doubt that the pressure from the media has led to changes in Government policy, and it is certainly not a stretch to say that the efforts of journalists have saved lives. Take the PPE supply crisis at the beginning of the COVID outbreak. Continued pressure and assertive questioning from the media led the Government to apologise and to significantly ramp up the manufacturing and distribution of PPE. 

Away from the COVID crisis, the media has also played a role in numerous national campaigns. Marcus Rashford’s battle to save free school meals was amplified through an opinion piece in The Times, and subsequent exposure through other media outlets. Without the media, the campaign could have been written off as ‘just another’ Twitter storm.  

The role of media outlets in disseminating key coronavirus guidance, and debunking conspiracy theories has also been key. And again, this has undoubtedly saved lives. A failure to communicate the value that the media brings and the values that it helps to uphold could see current distrust becomes a permanent trend. Without the democratic accountability that the media facilitates and its ability to ‘shine lights in dark corners’ we would all be the poorer. 

Perhaps it’s time that newspapers and media outlets brought in the expertise of the one sector they deride the most: PR.