Declining trust brings bad news to the New Zealand Media

But other countries fare no better according to the Trust Barometer

 

Colin Peacock
Auckland, April 9, 2023

Mediawatch of Radio New Zealand has studied the results of the biggest annual survey of New Zealanders’ trust in news.

It is on the slide for the fourth year in a row.

For the first time, it also showed that many of us are avoiding news altogether.

Is that because so much of it has been ‘bad news’ for so long? Or are we doing it badly? Mediawatch talked to the authors of the 2023 Trust in News Report.

Every year, international communications company Edelman creates a ‘trust barometer’ from surveys about institutions, governments and companies in 27 countries. In almost all of them, it recorded an annual decline in trust in all sources of general news and information.

It was the same again this year.

“A shared media environment has given way to echo chambers, making it harder to collaboratively solve problems. Media is not trusted, with especially low trust in social media,” the report found.

Fraying confidence

Launching the 2023 Trust Barometer in January, former Prime Minister Helen Clark said, “To a large extent in New Zealand, we have kept (trust) but you can feel it fraying. You can feel the influences of polarisation, for example, out of the US which plays in everybody’s media – and that is putting news pressure on as well.”

New Zealand is not among the countries that Edelman surveys, but a study by a local affiliate last year found that trust in media here is just 41%, well below Edelman’s global average of 50%.

Perhaps worse, a majority considered media here to be “a divisive force” in society.

But the report told a different story about news.

The fine print said the question about divisiveness was only put to half of the sample, trust in all media was up and 58% chose ‘traditional news media’ as a trusted source – a greater proportion than in the US, Japan or Australia.

So how low is the trust today really?

Since 2020, the most comprehensive annual survey of New Zealanders’ trust in news has been carried out by the AUT Centre for Journalism Media and Democracy (JMAD).

It uses Horizon Research for the data gathering and a survey of 46 other countries by the international news agency Reuters.

Dr Merja Myllylahti and Dr Greg Treadwell, Senior Lecturers, Communication Studies at the AUT Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy (RNZ Photo by Jeremy Ansell)

Sceptical New Zealanders

Four years ago, more than half of respondents said that they trusted most of the news most of the time – and almost two-thirds trusted the news they personally chose. Also, New Zealanders were more sceptical than those in many other countries about news on social media and through online search engines.

Since then, New Zealand has had lockdowns, anti-government and anti-Covid control protests and exposure to more misinformation online. On top of that, many claims have been made about our media being corrupted or compromised – or both – by increased government funding and support. Individual journalists and outlets have also been targeted by trolls and critics.

Last year’s JMAD survey found only 45% of New Zealanders were prepared to say they trusted the news media. In this year’s survey,  the trust has fallen to 42%, 11% less than in 2020.

Only 53% said that they trusted the news they choose in 2023. That is a slight uptick from last year but it has slumped from 62% four years ago.

“It is a worrying trend for democracy and journalism and news – and you start to wonder where the bottom is. We used to be sitting above the other comparable countries in the (international) Reuters survey – and now we are at the same level,” Dr Merja Myllylahti, Senior Lecturer of Communication Studies at JMAD told Mediawatch.

“It has actually been falling faster in New Zealand and other countries. Generally speaking, trust is one of the reasons that people choose the news to consume – and that is going down as well. So, that means, even the stuff that we like you New Zealanders are finding less trustworthy,” Dr Greg Treadwell, also Senior Lecturer of Communication Studies at AUT, said.

Colin Peacock, Mediawatch, RNZ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The trust scores for three major outlets, namely Radio New Zealand, Newstalk ZB and Māori Television – all fell by between 14% to 14.5%- coincidence or a trend.

“The people who do not know the brand are excluded from those figures. So, it is really difficult to say for outlets that have smaller audiences than the big ones like RNZ. But there is a trend. But RNZ is still leading the trust tables together with TVNZ and the Otago Daily Times,” Dr Myllylahti said.

Another Paradox  

State-owned TVNZ and RNZ are the most trusted national news media  – in spite of 61% of people who said that they did not trust the news citing government support as a reason because it undermined their independence.

Why do the doubters lack trust in the news?

“Newsrooms can do things to regain some of the lost trust in audiences, but there are other things intersecting here. This a self-reported level of trust and they tell us how they feel about things at that moment. The fall in trust in news is connected to the fall in trust in all social institutions. For example, RNZ is an institution and in some people’s minds, it is a government institution of sorts,” Dr Treadwell said.

“People are really grumpy with the government and if you go through a pandemic, a cyclone – all the things that New Zealand’s been through – emotionally, you want to take it out on someone. It is a very difficult thing to unpick,” he said.

Facebook was the third most popular source of news. Some respondents cited local information groups on Facebook as a preferred source of local news.

“During the flood two weeks ago, I was able to see photos and video of what was going on just down the road. This is faster than any news outlet. It is local, and it is real,” one female respondent, aged 55 to 64, said.

The Social Media

Dr Treadwell said, “When they say that they use Facebook (for) news, we do not know exactly what they are getting and where are they going from there.

But local news media outlets, including the Otago Daily Times, also returned healthier trust scores than national ones.

The JMAD report notes that a 2022 Pew Centre study in the US found that “adults under 30 are now almost as likely to trust information from social media sites as they are to trust information from national news outlets.”

By contrast, local news outlets were trusted as information sources by 71% across all age groups.

Dr Myllylahti also points to an uptick in people prepared to pay for news here, including via digital news subscriptions, as a positive sign.

“That might be some inkling that maybe we are levelling out. Hopefully, I will not be wrong next year,” she said.

Dr Treadwell said, “I actually do not think that it has bottomed out yet. But I also think that what people say they trust, and what they actually trust are quite two different things.”

Turning out altogether

Another finding of the 2023 report is that we are actually less interested in the news overall than other countries in the Reuters Institute’s survey – and a lot less than some.

About 69% of New Zealand respondents said that they ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ avoid the news. Brazil was second with 54% and Japan, just 14%. In Finland, Dr Myllylahti’s home country, only 20% of the people avoided the news.

The ‘Avoiding’ trend

The Trust in News Report said that the reasons people say they avoid the news are familiar.

“News feels depressing and biased, and it increases anxiety. Many of those responding found news repetitive, boring, and overly dramatic,” it said.

Despite that, the Stuff and New Zealand Herald news websites are among the most popular sites of any kind with New Zealanders.

But only 37% of New Zealanders surveyed agreed that they were ‘highly interested’ in news was equally alarming. More than two-thirds of Finns said they were interested.

“Finland is one of the countries where the news is most trusted. The newspapers put out an extremely high-quality product,” Dr Myllylahti said.

Dr Treadwell said that Surveys are always temporally contextual.

“This was done in the week after the cyclone hit. Even for those of us who weren’t very badly affected it was quite emotionally draining. But one of the reasons that we will largely agree on has to do with the anxiety that consuming the news creates or amplifies. I think all of us avoid the news on certain days, don’t we?” he said.

“I also think that there is an issue around what journalists are able to provide. We have seen restrictions, cuts, redundancies and newsrooms shrink by about 50% since the late 1990s. We have lost a lot of journalists, and they are trying to cover the same number of issues.

“We noticed that there are 14,500 journalists in Finland and about 2500 here. It does speak to what you can offer people. I think in New Zealand we are rushing the news. I am not blaming journalists for that, because that same stuff has to be covered with fewer resources, but you are inevitably going to get thinner coverage,” Dr Treadwell said.

Messengers of Bad News

“Journalists are also messengers of bad news. The complaint that newsrooms do not do good news is a very old one that goes back to when I was a journalism cadet at the age of 17,” he said.

There are many feelings that come up in people who are news consumers, and even if it is falling parallel to the loss of trust in government or education or other things in an increasingly polarised society … trust is falling and it is a big issue,” he said.

Colin Peacock is a ‘Mediawatch’ Presenter at Radio New Zealand. The above article (with slight modifications) has been published under a Special Agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

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