Can We Trust Surveys Of Our Trust In The Media?

Published: Sun 9 Jun 2024 07:10 PM
Colin Peacock, Mediawatch Presenter
Recent surveys have said our trust in media's falling fast, and made plenty of headlines. But lately new surveys say our trust isn't plummeting. The latest one is part of a pitch to persuade the government of the media's worth at a critical time for the business. Can we trust the media surveys of our trust in them?
"Some sensible people have spoken about the slant that the media put on anything that comes out of the right-wing government. The worst cancer we've got in this country is the left-wing media," said one talk radio caller this week.
He was reacting to TVNZ's Jack Tame quizzing the finance minister on TVNZ's Q+A last weekend about the failure to fulfil a promise on funding cancer drugs.
It was an example of the sort of cynicism that's been on the rise according to surveys of trust in the media.Hear all about on the issue in this week's Mediawatch here
Over the past five years the most comprehensive annual survey of New Zealanders' trust in news - carried out by AUT's Centre for Journalism Media and Democracy - has recorded a 20 percent slump.
In April the latest Trust in News in Aotearoa New Zealand report found trust in news in general tumbled from 42 percent in 2023 to just 33 percent this year.
The proportion of people who actively avoided the news "to some extent" grew from 69 percent in 2023 to a whopping 75 percent in 2024.
Falling trust in news in New Zealand recorded by the JMAD survey. Photo: JMAD
The bad news for the media was widely reported in the media at the time. Politicians and pundits and citizens alike picked up on it too.
But since then some better results have gone mostly under the media radar.
Last month an independent report [PDF] into the state of New Zealand media for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage surveyed more than 2000 people over 18.
Forty-eight percent agreed "news reporting is fair and balanced." Forty-three percent of people agreed that media organisations are trustworthy.
But a healthier 57 percent agreed that "news reporting is trustworthy".
Last month RNZ said its own latest survey of its performance showed "New Zealanders are increasingly aware of the value of public media and appreciative of its role".
Fifteen-hundred New Zealanders surveyed in early May found trust in RNZ up from 44 percent last year to 47 percent this year.
Sixty-one percent agreed that RNZ provides a valuable service, up from 54 percent in 2023 - the biggest proportion of people to say so since the survey in its current form began in 2018, according to RNZ.
RNZ was also among six of 58 state agencies to record the strong improvements in reputation in the 2024 Public Sector Reputation Index [PDF] carried out by polling company Verian, who surveyed 3500 people in March.
In the same month, pollster Emanuel Kalafatelis from Research New Zealand surveyed 1000 people for his regular slot on Sunday Morning on RNZ National. He found strong demand for local news and also increasing worry about people losing trust in it.
"We fully expected a swing away from television for news and current affairs, towards online and other digital platforms, but the poll results were consistent across age groups," he said.
Media outlets all need an audience that'll keep coming back, but at the moment trust is an acute concern for them because the entire industry has deep financial problems. They could use the support of the public, as well as the government, which is right now pondering policy that might help them.
One of the legislative changes the media are keen on is the Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill which could help local news media get money from the likes of Google and Facebook.
But the Parliamentary committee considering submissions on the bill - and amendments to it - has not recommended it to the House because of the reservations of government MPs.The art of persuasion?
Last Wednesday the News Publishers' Association (NPA) - which is pushing hard for the government to pass the bill - released even rosier findings from research on Kiwis' media habits and attitudes towards media.
This survey, by The Research Agency (TRA), found 93 percent of New Zealanders access the news at least once a day - and the work of local journalists is trusted by 80 percent of them.
"This research should give the government confidence that New Zealand's news content is of value," the NPA's public affairs director Andrew Holden said in a statement pitched to persuade the government to back the industry.
Can it be a coincidence the survey commissioned by the news publishers recorded expressions of trust in, and approval of, their work far higher than any other survey carried out by pollsters lately?
Andrew Holden, the News Publishers Association's Public Affairs Director Photo: Paul Rovere PTR
"Rest assured, as an old journo I'm pretty sceptical about this kind of stuff. So we quizzed our research agency TRA around the discrepancy," said Holden, formerly an editor of The Press and Melbourne daily paper The Age.
"When you [ask about] media in that context, people can bring any number of different elements of media into it. They may have in their mind RNZ and Morning Report, but they're also going to be thinking of Fox News or any elements that come into that definition of media."
Why isn't that same jaundice bleeding into the result TRA recorded?
"Because the question was very specific: 'What are the sources of news that you go to daily?' TRA gave them a range of options like radio or newspaper websites or TV, and then asked them much do they trust those. When the question is around... media outlets that you have a direct connection with, invariably, the result is higher.
"Knowing that New Zealand news is coming from local newsrooms, the level of trust they're going to have for that is going to be higher."
The Trust in News in Aotearoa New Zealand report published in April recorded three-quarters of people saying they avoid the news.
The NPA's survey finds a much higher level of interest and enthusiasm - 93 percent access the news at least once a day and almost six in 10 Kiwis check on it more often. It's a much higher level of interest and enthusiasm.
Is Holden sure that's right?
"Absolutely, I am. We've gone to a very reputable research company. They have online panels to ensure that the 1500 people are representative of New Zealand. There's no reason for me to doubt it."
TRA ran the survey online from 29 April to 10 May 2024, replicating a similar study by FehrAdvice & Partners in Switzerland to gauge the value of news.
"These methodologies included a trade-off analysis, to gauge decision-making behaviours on different platforms, as well as a modified behaviour method to test opinions on the quality, completeness and satisfaction of different Google search results," TRA said.
Does that mean people answer a range of questions that could colour the responses they have when it comes to trust and their use of the news?
"The specific questions around how often, for how long, and what sources they use came first - and the ones about trust. What they wanted to test was if somebody gets an online search result, how important is it to them that they can see links to a newsroom that identified for them where that information come from?"
"People are presented with a search and the answer it gives. [One] doesn't have any links to local news sites. Another one does. That level of satisfaction is 10 percentage points higher when people can see where that information's come from - and they'll know whether that reporting is true or not."
This bit of research looks pretty clearly aimed at the government, and possibly even the social media companies as well. Was this really a piece of lobbying the survey?
"One of the clear goals of this was to prove that there is a value to news," Holden said.
"New Zealanders do value their local news. They are looking for that local news through search and social media. That means it's got a value. Not only a copyright value, but a broader value to the quality of the service they're providing."
"[Google and Facebook] might be so big that they don't care, but I think it's entirely relevant for them that this is the way New Zealanders behave. We think they should pay for it.
"I'm sure if they do a search, they'll find all the information on our website."Media vs other institutions
Ever year local PR consultancy Acumen asks questions about trust in business, government, NGOs and the media. It mirrors the Edelman Trust Barometer surveys of 36 other nations.
This year just 36 percent expressed trust in the media here - a lot lower than the 50 percent recorded by Edelman elsewhere. Also, it had fallen by 5 percent since last year.
Can Acumen and the NPA both be right?
"The Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer asks how the respondent to the survey perceives media. We don't specifically ask about local media and drill down at that level," Adelle Keely, Acumen NZs CEO told Mediawatch.
"The trend for media has remained stubbornly low in New Zealand - lower than our global counterparts. But search engines and traditional media are actually holding up, and people have a neutral view of those types of media sources - which in some ways is counter-intuitive, because the search engine is a pipe for information - and it's the traditional media that actually feeds that pipe with information.
"It's social media that is dragging the media category down. Trust in social media is at 23 percent, which is firmly in the 'distrust' category.
"People have higher levels of trust where there is closer proximity or a personal relationship. We see differences where trust in CEOs generally is lower than trust 'my CEO' and 'people in my community' and 'citizens of my country' are also more trusted.
"We don't have the data to prove that, but that would suggest that local media, and local journalists where they are bylined - that information is more trusted than more just general news."
But Acumen NZ also found this year New Zealand business, government and NGOs were also not widely trusted to manage innovation - and also exhibited deep distrust of technological change.
The Edelman results for the Asia-Pacific region, which exclude New Zealand, show much more optimism about that.
The media here have to use digital technology and deal with AI and are being told by everyone from the prime minister down to innovate and adapt.
"I think it's a real concern. Media are innovating and doing a good job, although that story is not being acknowledged or shared more broadly. Stuff is using AI along with Microsoft to translate content into te reo, along with a human being that oversees that to make sure that that's appropriate and correct.
"I've heard of other examples where technologies are being used to improve production processes but those are not stories that are widely shared. It also provides balance to the narrative that media is broken."
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Radio New Zealand is a Crown entity established under the Radio New Zealand Act 1995. Radio New Zealand News are vital elements in our programming, providing impartial news and information to New Zealanders every day. Radio New Zealand (RNZ) provides listeners with exciting and independent radio programmes in accordance with the Radio New Zealand Charter.

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