Is hatred of the media linked to government mistrust? - analysis

“There is a strong correlation between trust in the media and trust in other social-governmental institutions,” said Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the IDI's Media Reform Program.

July 14, 2019 23:41
COPIES OF ‘Israel Hayom’ and ‘Yediot Aharonot’ are displayed in Ashkelon l

COPIES OF ‘Israel Hayom’ and ‘Yediot Aharonot’ are displayed in Ashkelon l. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A Gallup poll shows yet another drop in public confidence in both the media and Congress, but analysts say that while these two statistics are interconnected, it is likely that we will see a return to traditional media in the near future.

Gallup’s latest “Confidence in Institutions” survey, taken between June 3 and 16 and released on July 8, found that Americans have the least confidence in television news (18%) and Congress (11%).

“There is a strong correlation between trust in the media and trust in other social-governmental institutions,” said Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the Media Reform Program at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI).

Hebrew University Law Professor Yuval Shany expressed similar sentiments: It is in fact possible that these two statistics are intricately connected.

“If you want to run a democracy, then you need functioning institutions, and one of them is the media,” he said.

Shany explained that although the media is not part of the infrastructure of the government, it serves the important roles of both a watchdog and a platform to debate ideas.

“The media is another tool by which excess power is checked and curtailed, and it is an important channel for providing information and facilitating a marketplace of ideas,” he said. “Once the media has been delegitimized – stripped of its independent ethos and [becoming] part of the whole polarized, political world – then the media’s ability to serve as an effective watchdog is eroded, because everything that comes from the media is branded as political messaging.”

He said that in both Israel and America, the role of independent, investigative journalism has been significantly curtailed, in what he calls an era where the lines between real news, fake news and opinion pieces are blurred.

“It is very difficult to determine what the facts are,” Shany said. “The media is being used for partisan politics, and this is a very threatening issue.”

Specifically, the Gallup poll found that confidence in newspapers dropped from 27% to 23% between 2017 and 2018. Its heyday was in 1979 when confidence was at 51%. Since then, confidence in newspapers has not surpassed 39%, dropping from 28% in 2005 to its lowest point of 20% in 2016.

Television news lost four percentage points between 2017 and 2018, now ranking at 24% confidence. Here, too, the last time it had more than a 30% confidence rating was in 2006.

Perhaps more surprisingly, “Internet news” has seen a continuous drop, from 21% in 1999 to 19% in 2014 and only 16% in 2017. (There were no figures for 2018.)

“When we see that the level of trust falls below a certain critical level – normally 40% to 50%... it means people don’t believe the system actually works,” Shany explained. This, he said, can lead people to look for “radical changes or radical politics.”

He believes that the United States is seeing such a shift in the election of President Donald Trump, and currently in the likes of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders or some of the country’s freshman lawmakers, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Like Gallup, the Israel Democracy Index, a publication of IDI, looks at confidence in similar institutions in Israel. Altshuler explained that Israeli citizens express less than complete trust in their leadership, and in recent decades the level of confidence overall has been on the decline, although Altshuler did say that the three institutions polling the lowest in public confidence – the media, the Knesset and the government – did experience a slight upswing between the 2017 and 2018 indexes.

“A considerable number of Israelis – both Jews and non-Jews – feel, and even fear, that the ground is crumbling beneath the country’s democracy,” it says in the 2018 index. “Systematic efforts to weaken the bodies considered the watchdogs of democracy (among them the Supreme Court and the more critical media outlets) are causing many people to lose sleep, to the point where some are declaring that Israel can no longer be considered a democratic state in the fullest sense of the term.”

However, Altshuler said she believes that the situation is beginning to turn around for the media, despite the 2018 index finding that 58% of the public thinks the media is corrupt and only 11% of Israelis believe the media is an effective means to stop corruption. She said that the more politicians demonize or attack the media, the more people trust the media to expose those politicians.

“If we don’t have faith in the prime minister and we believe the prime minister is the one destroying the media, then we have to trust the media,” said Altshuler. “That is what we are seeing: those who don’t trust Trump trust The New York Times.”

In America, she said, the confidence of Democratic Party supporters in the media stood at 76% in 2018, the highest level since 1997, according to some polls.

But the other reason trust in traditional media is starting to rise has to do not with the government but with social media.

“It seems that social networks, which were the strongest catalyst for exposing media interests and removing media from the closet, are beginning to lose their charm,” Altshuler said. “The renewed rise in trust in the established media shows the disappointment in social networks, and points to yearning for a responsible adult who can give meaning and context to reality. People are not looking for trust but truth.”

She said that accurate surveys of the public’s trust in social networks and in the established media are not carried out in Israel, even though “the connection between the two is important for understanding the main mediation mechanisms in Israeli democracy, and even though the prime minister makes great use of social networks as a tool for circumventing the traditional media.”

Altshuler expects that the more people understand the way that social media works – how echo chambers, filter bubbles and algorithms create an online network that aligns only to one’s worldview or preferences, and therefore only show users part of the story – the more they will realize that the objective reporting they thought they were getting on Facebook and Twitter is not that objective at all.

Then, she said, “they will go back to trust mainstream media.”

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