Viewpoint: Public trust in mass media

Breaking, turning, and soaring?

Israeli public trust in the media, 2003-17 (photo credit: ISRAEL DEMOCRACY INSTITUTE)
Israeli public trust in the media, 2003-17
IN 2016, the Israel Democracy Institute’s Democracy Index pointed to an all-time low in Israeli public trust in the media. In 2017, however, it seems that that trend has reversed, with public trust reaching 28%, representing a rise of 4%.
The survey was conducted among a random sample of 1,024 respondents by a research team headed by Prof. Tamar Hermann of the IDI’s Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research.
Whether or not this is a one-time upturn we won’t know until we receive next year’s data. Either way, though a decline in public trust in the media is a troubling indicator, it is also a happy one because it suggests an increase in the public’s understanding of the media.
Israeli media may also be undergoing processes of diversification and change, which are highlighting its failures and areas for improvement and which the media may even slowly fix. The public knows how to respond to this and return the favor through increased trust.
Interestingly, the process we are witnessing in Israel is similar to the one currently happening in the United States. In a Gallup poll last year, American public trust in its media plummeted to a record low, while this year, a Gallup poll and a poll conducted by Reuters/ Ipsos in early October demonstrated a complete reversal of the trend.
According to another Gallup poll from June, specifically addressing trust in newspapers alone and television alone, more Americans say that they believe the newspapers more than they did a year ago. While the levels of trust are clearly not at the heights they were in the 1990s, the plunge has come to a halt.
This similarity between the United States and Israel is not surprising; the increase in both the public understanding of the media and the transparency of its interests are considerably improved through social media. That said, processes of transparency and trust are very much dependent on the political milieu of a given time.
Another thing Israel and the United States have in common is a comprehensive governing strategy by their heads of state to use attack tactics against mass media.
So what does the break in the trend of declining public trust in the media tell us?
The answer may be what political scientists term “the principal- agent problem,” which describes a situation in which an elected official promotes his agenda at the expense of the interests of the public that elected him.
By examining the data that contributed to an increase in public trust of the media in the US, the Gallup poll indicates a significant rise for the Democrats, a moderate rise for the independents and a stable level of trust for the Republicans.
The thing most clearly indicated by this data is that the American public no longer buys US President Donald Trump’s statement that the media are the enemy of the people. In Israel, the situation is similar.
IDI findings corroborate the public perception that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attacks the media not out of a desire to benefit the general public but mostly to benefit himself.
Firstly, there has been an increase in the past three years in percentages of the public who think politicians care more about their own interests than the interests of the general public. Secondly, three-quarters of the public object to the statement that a media tool should be shut down if it criticizes the regime too sternly. And thirdly, by examining the findings of the low level of trust in news deriving from social media, we learn that the tactic of “bypassing” traditional media through an unmediated communication with the public through social media does not work.
Similarly, in the US, a university poll reported in shows that 54% of the public believe the mass media more than they do Trump in his tweets concerning important topics, and only 36% believe Trump over the media.
The year 2017 may be remembered as the turning point in public trust of the media. The reasons for it may be the profound internalization of media transparency as well as an improvement in the media’s work; the fact that Netanyahu’s attacks on the media have run their course and the public’s understanding that they serve him more than the general public; and the disillusionment in social media and its built-in biases given that they play a significant role in the distribution of fake news – more so than mass media.
Paradoxically, this is a lifeline for the press, which must use it correctly and seize the opportunity to resituate itself as the watchdog, as the place where proper and significant research is carried out and not fake news; where the principles of diversification and transparency are implemented, and democracy and integrity are defended.
The writer is a senior fellow and head of the Media Reform Program and Open Government Program at the Israel Democracy Institute