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Regaining trust through truth

As 'fake news' abounds, news organisations must step up

The victims of London's Grenfell Tower are not just furious with local authorities for ignoring safety concerns raised before last month's blaze killed at least 79 residents.

They are angry with journalists too.

As reporters covered the fire at the apartment block, some residents turned on Channel Four News' Jon Snow, the most senior of Britain's news presenters, accusing journalists of being vultures attracted to death and tragedy.

"You didn't come here when people were telling you that the building was unsafe!" one man told Mr Snow. "That is not newsworthy. You come here when people die. Why?"

The Grenfell residents are hardly alone in accusing the media of not serving their needs. It's no secret that trust in the media has declined.

But the latest Reuters Institute Digital News Report, published last week, provided sobering insights into how the digital revolution has disrupted the way we absorb information.

The report shows that trust in the media varies from country to country, from over 60 per cent in the Scandinavian countries to the low 20s in Greece and South Korea.

In the US, trust in the media has risen from 33 per cent during last year's election campaign to 38 per cent this year.

That may be because, as the Reuters report notes, "concern about the spread of false news online" increased the perception of the value of professional journalism.

Most sobering is the report's comment that "the economic outlook for most media companies remains extremely difficult."

That statement does not include communications giants like Twitter, Facebook and Google, the latter two garnering more than 80 per cent of the advertising that used to go to traditional media.

But two issues loom larger.

One is what Ms Janine Gibson, the chief editor of Buzzfeed UK, calls "representation without judgment."

Speaking at a seminar in London last week, Ms Gibson said that the digital and social media world implicitly equates what news organisations spend time and money verifying, with "the guy in an attic" who puts out a piece of opinion masquerading as news, without having had to exercise his judgment on the veracity of his narrative.

The latter, said Ms Gibson, "is of course much quicker than the news which checks, because checking takes time".

The result, too, can be duller.

The more careful the reporter, the more complex becomes the story.

But the guy in the attic can be simple, dramatic - and that attracts the eyeballs.

At an extreme, the attic-writer puts out "fake news" - a commodity popularised by US President Donald Trump, who seems to see all news that does not praise him as "fake."

It is also becoming clearer that measurements of "trust" in the news media don't really measure trust in the news media - they measure pleasure gained from said media.

The Digital News Report says that there exists "a strong connection between trust in the media and perceived political bias".

That is, people trust the reports that flatter and further their views.

This is not new: People have chosen publications that correlate with their political choices throughout the history of news. But for most of that history, those who consumed news did so passively. There was no comeback, except through a letter to the editor or a cancelled subscription.

Now readers are empowered by technology, often aggressive in their distrust and disgust, to intervene in stories.

Mr James Harding, director of news at the BBC, speaking at the same event as Buzzfeed's Gibson, said that "we at the BBC are very careful to make clear what we don't know as well as what we know. But people now can fill the space of 'don't know' themselves".

We still live in the first phase of a revolution, not just of journalism but also in the ways in which we seek and use information, and in what we place our trust.

As printing disrupted the late medieval world, so the replacement of print by digits has disrupted the 21st century. It is calling into question the nature of truth, and the trust we can place in it.

Truth is hard to get right, especially at times of tragedies like that at Grenfell Tower.

Finding and publishing it will not always avoid anger directed at the messenger, but journalists need to show they are truth seekers rather than vultures feeding on tragedy.

That will give substance to journalism's necessary democratic role - and perhaps answer the "why" asked by the man who confronted Mr Snow. 
- REUTERS

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