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Turning off the news? Survey results in

Apr 09, 2023

Mediawatch looks at the results of the biggest annual survey of New Zealanders’ trust in news - which shows it’s on the slide for the fourth year in a row. For the first time it also shows many of us avoiding news altogether. Is that because so much of it has been 'bad news' for so long? Or are we doing it badly? Mediawatch talks 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 annual declines of 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.  

“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’s putting news pressure on as well,” former PM Helen Clark said at the launch of the 2023 Trust Barometer in January. 

New Zealand isn't among the countries Edelman surveys, but a survey by a local affiliate last year found trust in media here at just 41 percent, well below Edelman’s global average of 50. 

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

But the actual report actually 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 percent chose ‘traditional news media’ as a trusted source - a greater proportion than in the US, Japan or Australia. 

So how low is trust today really? 

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

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

Four years ago, more than half of respondents said 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 skeptical 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 percent of us were prepared to say they trusted the news media.  

In this year’s survey, that has fallen again to just 42 percent - 11 percent less than in 2020. 

Only 53 percent said they trusted the news they choose in 2023. That’s a slight uptick on last year - but it has slumped from 62 percent 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,” JMAD’s Dr Merja Myllilahti told Mediawatch. 

“It's actually been falling faster in New Zealand and other countries. Generally speaking trust is one of the reasons that people choose the news that they choose 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,” said JMAD’s Dr Greg Treadwell.  

The trust scores for three major outlets - RNZ, Newstalk ZB and Whaakata Māori (Māori Television) - all fell by between 14-14.5 percent. Coincidence or a trend. 

“The people who don't know the brand are excluded from those figures. So it's really difficult to say especially for outlets that have smaller audiences than the big ones like RNZ. But there is a trend,” said Dr Myllilahti.  

“But RNZ is still leading the trust tables together with TVNZ and the Otago Daily Times,” he said.  

Another paradox: State-owned TVNZ and RNZ are the most trusted national news media  - in spite of 61 percent of people who said they didn’t trust the news citing government support as a reason because it undermined their independence.

Why do the doubters lack trust in news?  

“Newsrooms can do things to regain some of the lost trust in audiences, but there are other things intersecting here,” said Dr Treadwell. 

“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's a government institution of sorts,” he 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,” he said. 

“It's 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 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's local, and it's real,” said one female respondent, aged 55 to 64. 

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

But local news media outlets  - including the ODT - also returned healthier trust scores than national ones.

The JMAD report notes 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 percent across all age groups.

Dr Myllilahti 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 leveling out. Hopefully I'm not wrong next year,” she said. 

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

Tuning out altogether

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

69 percent of New Zealand respondents said that they ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ avoid the news. Brazil was second in that table with 54 percent of people avoiding the news. In Japan the figure was just 14 percent.

In Dr Myllilahti’s home country Finland - only 20 percent.  

“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,” the Trust in News report says.  

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

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

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

“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,” said Dr Treadwell

“But one of the reasons that we'll 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?” said Dr Treadwell. 

“I also think there is an issue here around what journalists are able to provide. We've seen restrictions, cuts, redundancies and newsrooms shrink by about 50 per cent since the late 1990s. We've really lost a whole lot of journalists, and they're trying to cover the same number of issues,” he said. 

“We noticed that there's 14,500 journalists in Finland - and about 2,500 here. It does actually speak to what you can offer people. I think in New Zealand we're rushing the news. I'm not blaming journalists for that, because that same stuff has to be covered with fewer resources, but you're inevitably going to get thinner coverage,” Dr Treadwell said. 

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

There's a whole lot of feelings that come up for people who are news consumers, and even if it's 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.

Main image (Photo: RNZ/Jeremy Ansell): Dr Merja Myllilahti and Dr Greg Treadwell from the AUT's Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy. 

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