The annual Reuters Institute Digital Report has shown that trust in the media has fallen every year since 2015, a trend that broadly translates across countries and tends to be worse the more "divided" a society is.
Anyone following the US election results last week will have heard a lot about Americans being politically and culturally divided like never before, and president-elect Joe Biden has pledged to be a "healer in chief".
This will be a tough assignment, given how fragmented "the media" has become. For years, cable television outlets have become increasingly partisan and shrill in the US—see Fox News for the most extreme example—and newspapers have spent centuries framing information through political opinion. Now, social media has gamified attention states by displaying the number of retweets and "likes" a comment gets, giving rise to a virtual "shoutathon" in which the most extreme and performative characters regularly pick up the most shares and likes.
The pandemic, in which people are routinely asked to trust the advice of government experts, has also become highly politicised in the US. According to a spring edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer, 75% of people worry about fake news and the weaponisation of information. This means a majority of Americans "share a wariness when approaching consumption of media", according to Edelman global president and chief operating officer Matt Harrington.
However, there is a ray of light. Harrington told Campaign: "While media broadly is less trusted, there appears to have been a return to reliance on more traditional news sources. An interesting development in the past nine months has been a greater dependence on the evening news programmes from the traditional national broadcasters, with a number of programmes receiving their highest ratings since the early 90s. And, last week, The New York Times reported a record seven million digital subscribers, adding nearly 400,000 alone in the prior three-month period."
Even if you believe that Donald Trump is the product of what was an already febrile media landscape, he undoubtedly exacerbated it. In order to tell more than 20,000 lies while in office (as of July), Trump appeared to rely on the well-worn Soviet propaganda tactic of making people believe that all institutions are corrupt and dishonest.
Hence the familiar epithets that have, depressingly, become common parlance, such is the power of the US presidency. Terms such as "fake news", "deep state" and "witch hunt" are regularly thrown around to denigrate the pursuit of truth, justice and accountability.
In other words, did Trump create the "fake news" narrative or did the fake news create Trump? Now that he is (almost) gone, and might face criminal prosecution on a number of financial and corruption felony charges, will the Biden presidency spell a return to trust in the media?
Douglas McCabe, chief executive and director of publishing and tech, Enders Analysis
Yes, as far as it goes. The US election was a close race with a record turnout, revealing a deeply divided country, and social media and search likely had a relatively limited impact on the outcome. The biggest positive for US media will be a president who respects them and takes difficult questions from all sides. But this will not stop media digging in and accentuating social and political divides. Nor will it incentivise media to investigate and analyse (not explain away) different perspectives.
A president on a mission to heal social divisions is undoubtedly a better foundation. But let’s not forget the media and platforms' job was made easier by Trump having alienated many top Republicans, along with local leaders. It wasn't just about what they were broadcasting but who was willing to go in to bat for Trump. Meanwhile, a path to media regulation is tortured by a hopelessly fragmented Congress with different priorities and obsessions.
Yusuf Chuku, global chief strategy officer, VMLY&R
It’s highly unlikely that Joe Biden’s win will do much to improve trust in the media. Increased political polarisation has given rise to a distinction between “the media”, which is bad and can’t be trusted, and “my media”, which is invariably good. And with a news media that is much less deferential to powerful people and institutions than it once was, it’s no wonder that people dislike anything critical of their “side”.
At the same time, that lack of deference has meant the likes of Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein were able to be exposed by tenacious journalists at the Miami Herald and New York Times respectively. The only real solution is an increase in media literacy amongst the public, for people to be better able to discern for themselves the difference between news, opinion and analysis.
Tess Alps, outgoing chair, Thinkbox
Undermining trust in the media, along with dissing the judiciary, are classic tools in the fascist dictator’s playbook; we will look back at Trump and realise how close that regime came to damaging democracy. We can expect more respect for the media from Biden, but I hope not too much tolerance for some of the despicable shenanigans that have polluted political discourse and promoted polarisation in the US – and the UK, too.
Ofcom prevents the sort of rabid TV news that Fox News pumps out but, having watched CNN for days, sticking to impartial facts doesn’t need to lead to blandness. We saw social-media platforms start to take editorial responsibility like the media owners they really are. Twitter could have done more, more quickly, but it wins the social-media friend of democracy crown. Facebook is shifting in the right direction but has a long way to go. The least we should demand is that political ads, where money is changing hands, are fact-checked before being distributed. Advertisers have the influence to make this happen if governments won’t.
Dan Cullen-Shute, chief executive and founder, Creature
Well, the short answer is "you'd bloody hope so". It certainly won't do the media's cause any harm not to have the leader of the free world denouncing them from each and every platform he can find on each and every occasion he gets.
The longer answer, though, adds the small but vital caveat of "as long as they earn it". As debate has become polarised and binary in the UK, the media has too often followed suit; trust will return when the media are leading with truth, not agenda. For now, though, let's all take a breath, join The Great Unfollow and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet.
Benedict Pringle, co-founder, Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising
The various efforts from the likes of big tech and TV broadcasters to improve transparency and impede the spread of misinformation had a broadly positive impact on this election. That said, the actions taken have been piecemeal, ad hoc and largely without democratic accountability.
If a voter doesn’t agree with how Twitter labelled Trump’s tweets or felt that Facebook was wrong to stop an ad from running, there is no regulatory framework within which they can challenge the decision. This leaves the media open to the accusation that they are, in the words of the sitting president, conducting “selective censorship that is harming our national discourse”.
The best way to improve public trust in the media in the long term is for politicians to finally update electoral law to reflect the modern media world. We, the people, should have ultimate control over the rules that govern our elections, not Silicon Valley execs or TV network bosses.