Why don’t Australians ‘trust’ the media?
by Jonathon Oake
As you will likely be aware, the Finkelstein inquiry into the media has concluded with a proposal to significantly strengthen the regulation of Australia’s media. The undeniable fact that Australians increasingly distrust the (commercial) media is presented as a key justification for Finkelstein’s proposal:
“[The report] begins by answering the question put directly to it in the course of its hearings: Is there a problem?The answer given is yes, and the problem is described as taking many forms: market failure, general public distrust of the media and the consequences of this for the Australian polity, numerous instances of the media doing unjustified harm to people, and the failure of the existing regulatory systems to hold the media to account for these harms”
The word ‘trust’ appears in the report a further 147 times.Section 4.9 of the report deals exclusively with the question of public trust and confidence in the media as a key problem, and reviews all the major longitudinal studies on the matter (Roy Morgan, Essential Research, Saulwick, AC Nielsen, and some academic studies), all with similar results showing a decline of trust, growth in perception of bias etc etc.
My point is not to question this, which is beyond doubt. My point is to question the overarching narrative, accepted almost at face value within the Finkelstein report, that the perception of a biased, untrustworthy media is most likely increasing because of something the media is doing – i.e. it’s simply not doing a very good job.
There are two key strands within Finkelstein’s analysis of the media – the first is of growing distrust of the media, and the second is of massive structural change within the industry. For the most part Finkelstein keeps these two strands separate, almost suggesting one has very little to do with the other. But I don’t think it’s a pure coincidence that media diversity is exploding, and consumption fragmenting, at the exact same historical point that public trust in the media is eroding.
Matt Yglesias penned this 2-paragraph note Partisan Media: An Economic Analysis, explaining why he thinks the media in the USA is increasingly partisan (something which would reduce it’s trustworthiness in the eyes of the public):
The Grand Old Days of American journalism were characterized first and foremost by severely curtailed competition. There were three television networks, and outside of New York each city had basically one newspaper … What’s happened to the United States over the past 30 years is that cable, talk radio, and the Internet have created a more competitive media market that’s much less dominated by geographically segmented quasi-monopolies.
So in the old days newspapers (to take one example) enjoyed a virtual distribution monopoly over news-delivery in a particular geographic area. The competition in TV and radio was not much higher. This was equally as true in Australia.
So (and I’m paraphrasing Yglesias closely here) in a one-newspaper town there are two choices for a consumer – either buy the Adelaide Advertiser, or don’t buy the Adelaide Advertiser. The strategy for the Advertiser’s editor therefore is to be as broad, inoffensive and neutral as possible, in order to scoop up as many readers as possible. have a broad mix of content: news, editorial, sport, gossip, weather, crosswords etc etc etc. Don’t be too controversial; don’t take too strident a view that might alienate readers; just the facts. An entire ideology of the newspaper as the neutral, balanced, paper-of-record sprang directly from this business model.
However in the last few years structural changes to distribution (i.e. the internet) has forced change on this business model. No traditional media (newspaper, TV or radio) has a distribution monopoly anymore, which for consumers means a lot more choice. Why would I want to read a broad bundle of neutral articles when I can consume something which speaks directly to me as a (older right-wing or younger progressive) individual? The traditional newspaper product, by targeting everyone, through this de-individualised, one-size-fits-all approach, now effectively targets no-one.
It’s little wonder that the most successful traditional media organisation of the past decade has been Fox News, which all but created an immersive virtual-reality experience for conservatives. In the UK the newspapers that look best-equipped to deal with this world are those with a clear editorial stance: the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Sun. The harder-to-pin-down Independent, Times, Daily Mirror and Daily Express without exception have seen higher circulation drops and lower online audience growth.
But back to Finkelstein: why do Australians distrust the media? First thing to note is that there’s been an explosion of media in the last 20 years. Since the 1990s the amount of time spent with media has increased from 50 to 70 hours per week – and not just the internet: Pay TV, new digital TV channels, digital radio etc.There is much wider media diversity, catering to a much wider types of audiences, and that means choice for consumers. But it also means consumers are choosing to consume a (relatively) smaller slice of a much larger pie, and rejecting the rest. In short, Australians distrust media in part because there’s so much more nowadays to distrust.
And why should Australians trust all media – that is, the media as a single, monolithic entity? Why should I care, as Finkelstein does, if someone distrusts the specific media that I choose to consume, anymore than they dislike the music I listen to or the food I eat? As long as there is a genuinely diverse market from which they can find something they DO trust. No-one is forced to consume the Herald Sun, and less so than ever before, when it was one of only two suppliers of text-based news in Melbourne. The question ‘Do you trust THE media?’ is the wrong one for pollsters to ask; ‘Do you trust ANY media?’ makes more sense today.
The Australian newspaper makes a case-in-point. There shouldn’t be any doubt it’s a conservative-leaning newspaper, which has shifted further to the right in recent years. In fact, I’ve argued elsewhere I think this is a conscious strategy, and based on their relative circulation in that period, a successful one. If I was running the paper, I’d do the same, given the dead-end of trying to appeal to everyone. The paper appears in Finkelstein’s report as a bogeyman, with its biased coverage of climate change and the NBN. But there’s surely no doubt its intended target – senior professionals in traditional employment (law, finance, medicine, public service) and self-funded retirees – don’t share this perception of bias.
The Australian is read by 402k people, Monday to Friday – less than 2% of the population of the country. It is, by any measure, a niche publication – one tiny voice in a much, much bigger sea of news sources that continues to grow. It’s a glorified pamphlet. Yet it’s being held to expectations more appropriate for a time when newspapers were the only news source available – when almost a third of the UK adult population read The Sun each day.
Distrust of the media is intrinsically tied to the underlying changes in the media economy. It’s the effect of fragmentation in the market – 100s more news sources than ever before, competing for audience attention, and trying for the first time in their history to differentiate their voice. Consumers trust only the small percentage of sources they choose to consume, and distrust (and ignore) everything else. The days of every person in Australia reading from the same ‘trusted’ paper are, if not quite over, moving in that direction. And increasing regulation around enforcing corrections will make no difference to that, and I’m not convinced that it’s even desirable.