Trust is like the air we breathe; it is essential to our wellbeing and survival, but we barely notice or think about it until it’s in short supply.
In many different parts of the world, trust in public and public-serving institutions – especially the news media – has declined alarmingly over at least the last decade. Its absence is creating enormous disruption around the world, threatening politics, public health, social relations and many of the other foundations of well-functioning societies.
One of the contributors to this state of affairs is the internet. It promised access to a vast ocean of data, news and information, to liberate us from the media’s traditional gatekeepers and to make us smarter, more engaged citizens.
The internet revolution delivered on some of that promise. But it also unleashed a flood of disinformation and, well, junk. And with weakened gatekeepers, it eventually made it harder than ever to know what and whom to trust.
A number of initiatives are trying admirably to come to the rescue by developing indicators and standards aimed at identifying waning public trust in media and reversing it – notably United For News, a collaboration of global media companies, technology firms and prominent NGOs that are experimenting with ways to strengthen public trust in media and to give the public better access to reliable information.
But I worry that they will ultimately fall short, because they too often avoid the biggest factor: building trust in media must start with media consumers. Yes, we must help shore up the media business model, the partial collapse of which has resulted in the dumbing down of news in order to generate more traffic. But we cannot abdicate our judgement to the media. We must build a society of critical thinkers who can discern between good and bad information. We – the consumers of news – must become the gatekeepers.
The remaining traditional purveyors of news and newsworthy information have set high standards of quality for themselves. But they still produce lots of low-integrity, divisive or intentionally misleading content. They cling to the market for solutions, but the market usually fails to regulate public goods like news.
Moreover, trust-building initiatives ultimately have no credible mechanisms with which to enforce compliance with higher standards. And journalists, even those who are highly trained, skilled and experienced, are not part of a regulated profession such as law or medicine. That leaves room for malpractice without consequence.
Internet platforms such as Google, Facebook or Twitter – which bear a good chunk of responsibility for the declining integrity of the information that washes over us every day – have captured advertising revenue that used to be the lifeblood of traditional news media. It’s an example of how the market has failed to produce the best product or solution for the public.
Consumer responsibility and ownership of the challenge – not self-imposed standards by the new media themselves – can ensure the availability of vibrant, credible content. Putting consumers at the centre of the problem includes giving them real and durable skills to detect and weed out disinformation.
In Finland, for example, the government has for decades prioritized equipping its citizens from an early age with media literacy tools that help them navigate the otherwise confusing profusion of information they encounter. Media literacy is a basic ‘civic competence’ that every Finnish citizen has an obligation to possess, and it is infused through a range of government ministries and agencies.
Elsewhere around the world, media literacy is at best treated as a nice but inessential skill. At worst, it’s something governments and other institutions try to deny their citizens. But like reading, writing and arithmetic, we simply cannot have a strong society without it.
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Restoring public trust in media also depends upon creating environments that strengthen local media. In the US, local media – print, online and broadcast – enjoy far greater trust by consumers than national media do, according to recent research. But most new outlets that have not already gone out of business struggle to stay afloat financially and operate without the resources to deliver fully on the public’s trust.
It is time to experiment with new business models that, as some argue, makes them less dependent on advertising revenue and more on subscriptions. That puts the consumers of news, not advertisers, at the centre of the enterprise. At a time when so much news and information is available for free, this might feel unrealistic. But there’s already evidence that readers in several countries seem ready to pay for news.
Finally, much of the distrust of media is generated or exponentially increased on internet platforms. As even Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has conceded recently, the platforms can no longer be the dominant infrastructure for the dissemination of a public good – healthy information – and escape sensible regulation that, again, puts the interests of news consumers first.
That is a welcome and long-overdue development. But it will only be effective if news consumers themselves are put at the centre of the solution to a deepening challenge that we can’t afford to ignore.