MEDIA MISTRUST Breaking the Spell of Social Media

Although fake news and social media outrage seem ubiquitous, a new survey suggests trust in conventional news media may actually be increasing.
As a recent study has shown consumers have difficulty distinguishing between reliable and unreliable news sources. Photo: Monika Skolimowska/DPA

It seems like the news media have never been as hated or as mistrusted as they are today. Populist parties decry the mainstream media as liars and stooges, while social media seethes with conspiracy theories and angry accusations. "Fake news" has emerged both as a result and a cause – one serious enough for social networks and political parties to take urgent steps to combat.

But a new study from the University of Mainz, led by professors Oliver Quiring and Tanjev Schultz, suggests things are not so simple. While the proportion of Germans saying they had no trust in the media has tripled since 2008, soaring to some 24 percent, around 40 percent of respondents said they had much or complete confidence in the media, up from 29 percent in 2008.

The German weekly, Die Zeit, a sister publication to Handelsblatt, interviewed Mr. Quiring and Mr. Schultz to find out more about the current state of trust in the media today.

Many skeptics do not entirely dismiss mainstream media. They rely on it, but with scattered suspicion which can escalate into accusations. Oliver Quiring, Professor of Communications Studies, Mainz University

According to Mr. Quiring, those who reject the mainstream media appear to suppress dissenting opinions and cherry pick their preferred expert views. Nevertheless, they also rely on major news sources for basic information. “Many skeptics do not entirely dismiss the media. They have broad suspicions, which can escalate to accusations of lying, especially if their own experience is contradicted,” he said.

Mr. Schultz said there was a considerable lack of understanding of how the media works – a fact journalists often underestimate. In the Mainz study, he added, 39 percent of those surveyed believed publishers determined what was reported in their news outlets. This was particularly disturbing, he said, because it was simply untrue. What also goes unrecognized by many media consumers, he explained, is the considerable diversity of opinion within larger newsrooms.

The answer to this lack of knowledge was media education, the study's authors suggested. For Mr. Quiring and Mr. Schultz, media studies is even more important today than in previous decades, when “there were no alternatives to the established media, and journalists were the gatekeepers of public opinion.” Today's increased opportunities for expressing opinion also bring with it networks of disinformation – especially websites and social media accounts – dedicated to spreading lies. Children, said Mr. Quiring, should learn what good journalism is and how it works. This includes the ability to distinguish between solid news sources and the polemical voices of bloggers.

News organizations “should better explain how they approach certain themes, how they do their research, and how they form opinions,” said Mr. Quiring. Accordingly, the increased use of journalists’ pictures and profiles had a positive effect in this regard, because it offered a sense of the person behind the news. Mr. Schultz said he welcomed the trend of news organizations explaining how they report. He also praised the appointment of ombudspersons to mediate complaints.

Another problem, Mr. Schultz said, was the sheer pace of contemporary reporting and opinion formation. In some ways, this grew out of earlier practices. Newspaper columns had always been opinionated, the sharper and less ambiguous the better. But this tradition fed directly into the frantic "hot-take" culture of the Internet and its glib opinions on current events.

“Earlier, journalists had copy deadlines which gave them time to research and think. But now everything must be published as soon as possible. That leads to an overheating of public discourse,” he added.

The study's authors said their research findings should ideally help journalists put social media into proper perspective. Although social media looms large in contemporary journalism, most people’s online activity is decidedly apolitical. Only 7 percent of Internet users posted regularly on discussion forums, while over 90 percent of those on Twitter and Facebook never used social media to discuss politics. All in all, “a small minority of users determine the discourse on social media,” said Mr. Quiring.

There is a danger that the loudest and most aggressive people can determine the nature of the discourse. Oliver Quiring, communications professor, Mainz University

But that small minority can still make a real difference. “There is a danger that the loudest and most aggressive people can determine the nature of the discourse,” said Mr. Quiring. This aggression can also impact journalists, added Mr. Schultz. Negative comments below an article can impact a writer's confidence and affect their future work, he added.

Asked what journalists could do to change the situation, Mr. Schultz advised writers to stay calm and remember that social media no more reflected widespread sentiment than old-fashioned vox-pops – that is, brief interviews with members of the public. “These were not taken very seriously. Mostly the intern would be asked to do them. Social media is often essentially no better than that,” he said.

However, while consumers are often accused of living in a media bubble, trapped among the like-minded, the same could be said for journalists, Mr. Schultz argued. The solution? Getting back to real reporting and interacting with a cross-section of ordinary people – not just online.

This article was originally published in Die Zeit. To contact the author: reda[email protected]