It's difficult to imagine a society without trust. In reality, a society with no trust cannot be a society. Trust is a fundamental element in every community, in every household, or just in the relation among the organizations composing this society. Trust is confidence, dependence, and hope. It promotes social interaction, and even influences the economy of every country. Trust, like love, or friendship, are connected to human existence, and it's among these interactions that truth also resides. A life made with no truth is certainly a life made with no trust; no matter if in a relation between husband and wife, the people and the government, the people and the church, or specifically the people and journalists. Thus, several reasons explain the crisis in news. But among them, fake-news is probably the bigger one.
The term fake-news is not recent. During the past century, radio was used as the tool for many lies and propaganda. People believed that listing radio was a "civic practice," where listeners would become more "active, rational," and informed. However, radio was many times used to spread "hysteria," because what was said in radio, it was normally spread around all the other media channels like newspapers. In 1934, the Federal Communications Commission, an independent federal agency, was created with the focus of regulating the "interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable," but nothing prepared our society for the explosion of the internet, and more specifically for the uncontrolled social media where information spreads in a complete sense of disorder.
A man reads the Boston Globe newspaper in Cape Cod, MA. Photo by Sam Wheeler.
Journalists—considered in old times as the carriers of truthful, and trustworthy information—are the ones who have been suffering the most with social media. A recent study conducted by Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford, shows 67% of the people who don't trust the news believe there's some kind of bias, spin, or hidden agenda behind news articles. For other side, the same study shows 24% agreed "social media does a great job in separating fact from fiction."
A different study by the American Press Institute's Media Insight Project shows many people can't recognize the differences among "op-eds," editorials or news stories. For example, 68% of the people polled believe journalists should provide more information about sources, and 48% think journalists should explain how the story was reported. The study also refers there are clear "problems of miscommunication" between journalists and the public, which makes the audience to not understand how journalists do their job. All of this explains why the public thinks that what they read is fake-news, and this also links to the lack of trust seen.
There's a popular maxim that goes like this: What is the thing that is at the same time the hardest thing to get and the easiest thing to lose? The answer is reputation. Trust is certainly at the same level. Psychologist Anne Böckler-Raettig says trust is indispensable to "maintain and repair relationships." Trust is developed since humans are children, and it grows in a "dynamic process." Reciprocation is also necessary in an ongoing relation, because it makes both sides feel accomplished.
Judith Miller, Pulitzer Prize-winning and former reporter for the New York Times, talks
about the lack of trust between the media and the public.
With internet, and the social media in specific, the news became much more biased and lost the classical standards of objectivity. The financial pressures may be one of the many reasons why journalists are more "politically polarized," says Judith Miller, a well-known former reporter for The New York Times who, in 2005, served 85 days in jail as a result of the case Plame Affair. To PragerU, an online resource known for being conservative, Miller said "many reporters like to claim themselves as independent, but they're not. Most of them are liberal." She refers that reporters were once only responsible for reporting, but nowadays they are also advocates.
The internet's disorder also originated great resources to help fighting misinformation. For example, both the FactCheck.org, launched in 2003, and the Politifact.com, launched in 2007, make a positive work on trying to review (in detail) the most important stories published by the media, and make sure these are accurate. If the press works as the watchdog of the government, these organizations work as the watchdog of the press itself, pressuring them to make a greater job.
While looking to data from the Pew Research Center, and published by Wired, it's possible to predict a darker future for journalism. When sampling only the ages between 18-29, the results are clear: 5% consumes news on a printed newspapers, 14% consumes news on radio, 27% consumes news on TV, and 50% consumes news on social media. Among many powerful people, politicians understand this data and know they can communicate online with no barriers. They are today highly independent from professional news media, and use their own teams and tools to communicate directly with the public. The best example of this is the example of President Donald Trump, who after winning the 2016 election, said to Fox News in March 2017, "I wouldn't be here without Twitter."
Tools like the Twitter are today used to promote dissent, instead of consent. Millions of people read and share fake-news stories and conspiracy theories, but the majority of them don't even know it. The results of these actions create anger and divide the society even more. Truth is: Good journalism should create consent, but with the lack of influence that journalists have on their public, it's hard to predict a brighter future. Good journalism helps to understand many events happening in our society, and prepare the people for those changes. And people (i.e., the audience) should be the first ones to require good journalism for their own benefit.
If that is the case, what journalists should do then in the relation to trust? For Joy Mayer, a community engagement strategist and co-founder of Trusting News, journalists should explain the public what they do, how they do and why they do the work they do; even if that means they should explain where the funds come from. If this industry rules by transparency, truth and ethics, so journalists have to open the book, and create conditions for a relation with more trust and less ambiguity.
This article was written for the Demystifying Media Workshop at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication.