The Post-Trust Crisis of Mainstream Media

by Dr Catherine Happer

In the aftermath of Trump’s election, and to some degree the Brexit vote in the UK, mainstream liberal journalists have been lamenting their own failure.  The initial debate on the nature of the failure – to represent audiences?  to anticipate Trump’s appeal?  or simply to persuade? –  in part reflects a lack of consensus on what the role of journalism in a democracy should be.  But increasingly the journalistic soul-searching has come to rest on the question of the failure to hold to account those peddling ‘post-truth’ politics.  Implicit to this is a disruption to the normal, or preceding, condition in which ‘truth’ or ‘objectivity’ hold, as a New York Times article on the age of post-truth muses, ‘a sacred place in Western liberal democracies’ (Davies 2016).   The way to restore faith in the noble ‘truth’ of the liberal mainstream?  Fact-checking ‘fake news’– and lots of it.

But if the success of a billionaire businessman spouting ‘fake news’ in persuading millions of ‘ordinary people’ that he speaks for them remains mysterious to journalists, there is evidence to suggest that Trump’s own credentials are in fact far less significant than the collective which he, Farage et al, self-define in opposition to. This ‘other’ is, arguably even more than immigrants and ethnic minorities in the case of Trump, the liberal ‘mainstream’ defined in a vague and broad-reaching sense, bound up with conceptions of contemptuous elitism, lack of transparency, corruption and an unrepresentative public discourse.  America, Trump summarised during his campaign, is:

being led by a group of censors, critics, and cynics. Remember: all of the people telling you that you can’t have the country you want, are the same people telling you that I wouldn’t be standing here tonight. No longer can we rely on those elites in media, and politics, who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place (Politico 2016).

The construction is one of a culture strictly disciplined in respect of what can be said, the interests which are represented and one which systematically silences the concerns and realities of ‘the people’.  Democrats defeated, there are indications the media are being singled out as the central enemy;  in early 2017, Steven Bannon, Chief White House Strategist for President Trump, told The New York Times that ‘the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while’ (Grynbaum 2017).

Having examined public reception of news media over a number of years, both in the West and more recently in China and Brazil, my findings may offer insight into the way in which this messaging resonates (Wellesley et al 2015; Happer and Philo 2016).  When mapping out the social, cultural and attitudinal environment within which information is received across these locations, there emerges a distinct axis around which these processes can be understood.    What is immediately striking is that those in the China and Brazil groups, whilst not taking an uncritical perspective on state actors, largely invest trust in the range of speakers in the public sphere and hold the general belief that political action will benefit the wider public.  Across six years of research in the UK, and latterly in the US, responses indicate a phenomenon, confirmed by other research, of a widespread crisis in public trust.   This extends beyond political actors to the range of voices which have a public platform – scientists with an agenda; economists who led us into the financial crisis; lawyers who let politicians off the hook.  The result is a real lack of faith in the political process, and a sense of a dysfunctional democracy at best, at worst, one that has failed.  Even before Trump arrived, the US and UK focus group respondents sounded remarkably like him:

You have to play by other people’s rules… it’s just a big system of politics and funding and fundraisers.  (Male, US, lower income, 2015)

They [the media] all have their own political agendas…I couldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them.  They’re in cahoots with the military, the government, they toe the line and they don’t tell you the truth. (Male, UK, middle income, 2014)

The government is going to tell you what they want you to believe.  Just like we don’t know what happens in Korea… it’s the communications that they are allowing you to read. (Male, US, lower income, 2015)

Some of this reflects an anti-politics discourse which is not new:  attacks on liberals, elites and corruption in the wider society have been historically reinforced in varied forms, particularly in the right wing media.  Often this comes directly from those conservative politicians who provide the news pegs.  These pre-exist and co-exist with the political rhetoric from Trump, Farage and UKIP.   But the wider context is the common experience of neoliberalism in the West.  At the ideological level, individuals are offered freedom of choice in respect of schools, of health, of leisure but in fact these choices are largely illusory as freedoms are reduced by casualised, low security labour, and intensive bureaucracy.   In practice, the level playing field in respect of freedoms and opportunities for individuals is undermined by increased state intervention in the marketplace to redirect power to large global corporations.  That’s led to a huge lack of transparency and corruption at the highest levels.  Arguably journalism in the neoliberal era is fundamentally dishonest.   The reporting of the financial crash, of the Leveson inquiry, of the justification for austerity (which departing UK minister Iain Duncan Smith clarified) – the media has suffered from a systematic failure to expose the gap between what politicians say and what is actually happening.  Audiences have recognised that dishonesty in the media and politics.  The nature of these processes may not always be clear, but there is a strong emotional sense that things aren’t fair.  Not surprisingly, in groups, respondents often report feeling powerless.

While research shows that there is a gap in respect of trust in what can be defined as ‘mass populations’ and ‘informed publics’ (Friedman 2017), our findings indicate this set of beliefs around trust has become a central filter for the reception of information for a surprisingly wide range of groups.    What seems to be different are the responses within a rapidly evolving digital media ecology:  for some audience members, the answer is to source more and more information.  The strategy here is to strip away the inherent bias of each news outlet and allow ‘the basic facts’ to emerge.  Evidence suggests that this is not an especially effective approach in that immersion in an environment in which arguments and counter arguments are apportioned equal (if relative) weight can simply lead to withdrawal and disengagement. As this comment illustrates:

I think it’s because we’re exposed to so many opinions from people and, you know, a lot of the time it is conflicting opinions, you don’t know who to believe, so it’s a case of believing nothing instead of believing anything.  (Female, UK, middle income, 2014)

But most people aren’t ready to abandon their beliefs – and so are looking for interpretive strategies to help their decision-making.    Perhaps paradoxically in the digital environment, in which audiences are constantly in motion, most do not engage with a broad spectrum of opinion.  Instead they forge a very insular media ecology which is shaped by new forms of (de)legitimisation of information through sharing, liking, posting and so on.   In this space, (dis)trust becomes a primary driver for reception and engagement – Trump has harnessed this to re-orientate attention away from truth-seeking to exposing the corruption and lies of those who claim to speak it.   It also helps that the nature of social media promotes the expression of rage he espouses rather than considered debate.

It is, of course, crucial that journalists call out the distortions and inaccuracies of those in power.  But what Trump’s team and the Brexiteers seem to better understand is that currently the problem lies not so much in the production of ‘facts’, alternative or otherwise, but in their reception.  It is the winning back of trust in journalism that must be addressed – with some urgency in respect of the potential dangers of the Trump presidency but certainly prior to any attempt to strategically counter false information.   Crucially this involves a more reflective take on journalists’ own culpability – that the liberalism they so righteously defend has been distorted in the neoliberal age, with liberty of markets so prioritised so as to negate other core elements such as egalitarianism and balanced representation.  Neoliberalism has hollowed out the contract between journalists and audiences, and only an honest reflection on the ‘failure’ is likely to build it back up, with recognition of the desperate need for their future role in defending the rights of those they claim to serve.

‘Trump and the Media Symposium’, University of Glasgow, June 14th, hosted by Catherine Happer, Andrew Hoskins and William Merrin, of Swansea University

‘Bipolar America: The Post-Trust Crisis of Mainstream Media’ (2017, forthcoming) by Catherine Happer and Andrew Hoskins.

References:

Davies (2016, 24 Aug) The Age of Post-Truth Politics, The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/24/opinion/campaign-stops/the-age-of-post-truth-politics.html?_r=0

Friedman, U. (2017, Jan 20) Why Trump Is Thriving in an Age of Distrust, The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/01/trump-edelman-trust-crisis/513350/

Grynbaum, M. M (2017, Jan 26) Trump Strategist Stephen Bannon Says Media Should ‘Keep Its Mouth Shut’, The New York Times.   https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/26/business/media/stephen-bannon-trump-news-media.html

Happer, C., and Philo, G. (2016) ‘New approaches to understanding the role of the news media in the formation of public attitudes and behaviours on climate change’. European Journal of Communication, 31(2), pp. 136-151.

Politico (2016, 21 July) Full text: Donald Trump 2016 RNC draft speech transcript. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/full-transcript-donald-trump-nomination-acceptance-speech-at-rnc-225974

Wellesley, L., Happer, C., and Froggatt, A. (2015) Chatham House Report: Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption. Project Report. Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London.

Biography:  Catherine Happer is a lecturer at Glasgow University and member of the Glasgow University Media Group. Her research interests include media and communications, social change, and public engagement on climate change. Before returning to Glasgow University, she spent a number of years at the BBC working first as an audience researcher and later in television production.  Catherine has given evidence at the House of Commons Select Committee on Climate, Policy and Public Understanding, presented to the Scottish Government and at national and international conferences and appeared on the BBC and Al Jazeera.

You can follow her on Twitter @catherinehapper