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Why don’t Kiwis trust the media?

Peter Griffin posted in on October 7th, 2009.

We hear the grumbles about the media all the time – from friends and family, colleagues and the inevitable bloggers sneering about the useless “MSM” or mainstream media.

If the media isn’t beating the story up, it seems, it is getting it completely wrong. But are things really that bad with the media? Is the apparent jaded view of the media widespread in society?

Well, survey company UMR today released some research which gives at least some indication of the regard people have for the media – 25 per cent of respondents in a telephone survey of 750 New Zealanders aged over 18 years thought the media was inaccurately reporting the news.

Almost one-third (30%) of respondents said the media is one-sided in presenting the news, and half (50%) said the media is unwilling to admit to mistakes. The survey has a margin or error of plus or minus 3.6 per cent* (see below for the methodology used in the questioning)

Said UMR’s Tim Grafton: “What was of most concern was how few people said the media was accurate and balanced in it news reporting. Only 35% said the media was accurate, 30% said the news was balanced and 27% said the media was willing to admit to mistakes.”

He told me that when comparing UMR surveys attempting to ascertain the level of confidence New Zealanders have in society’s institutions, the media comes last – behind the police, government, the legal profession and even big business.

So, the people we rely on to keep those other institutions of society honest and accountable, are considered to be sloppy with the facts, biased and unwilling to own up to their mistakes.

Having worked in a newspaper newsroom, I can relate to the point about taking ownership of mistakes. No one, from reporter through to editor likes to own up to mistakes and when you are writing a news story with 30 or 40 facts to get right, mistakes slip through the net. Retractions and corrections are embarrassing and media people will often try to squirm out of facing up to mistakes.

Here at the Science Media Centre we’ve seen evidence of that in the last week or so with an editor who was unwilling to admit a science story run prominently was factually inaccurate. His solution was to encourage critics to write letters of complaint to the paper. No attempt to run a correction or to even modify the online version of the story.

During the short and volatile tenure of New Zealand Herald editor Steve Davis, the paper ran a column each day titled “We Got it Wrong”. Reporters hated finding themselves in that column, not only because Davis kept a tally of offences by writers, but because the column’s name evoked such shame. Once Davis was gone the column was retitled “Corrections and Clarifications”. Once again reporters could breathe a sigh of relief – no longer would their errors come under the forceful headline “We Got it Wrong”.

Is it a concern that only 35 per cent of adults think what they are being presented with in newspaper, magazine and internet articles and radio and TV news bulletins, is accurate? I think so, but you’re unlikely to see these statistics making front page news tomorrow.

What are the reasons for the lack of confidence? I think the commercial meltdown the media is going through has something to do with it – standards have definitely slipped as the headcount in newsrooms has decreased, subbing functions have been outsourced and contributor pay rates have been cut.

But I think it goes deeper than a resourcing issue. There’s a cynicism running through society when it comes to the media – one that on a wider scale, perhaps goes back to the way the geopolitical issues of the post-September 11 world have been covered and the failings of that coverage.

As for science reporting, Grafton said the surveying didn’t go into subject matter. But it would be interesting to see how confidence in political reporting compares to science reporting, how health reporting compares to sports reporting. If anyone has seen any research on the matter, I’d love to hear about it.

The SMC has been tracking media coverage of science using a series of keywords since the centre opened for business in July 2008. Next week we’ll publish the results of the 2008-2009 SMC Science Media Tracker. It reveals some interesting trends around science reporting and the ebb and flow of the news cycle and how science and technology fit into the news agenda. Keep an eye out for it.

*Respondents were asked to rate accuracy on a 1-5 scale where 1 meant ‘very accurate’ and 5 meant ‘very inaccurate’, balance on a similar scale where 1 meant ‘very balanced’ and 5 ‘very one-sided’, and willingness to admit mistakes where 1 meant ‘very willing’ and 5 meant ‘not willing at all.’ Those who gave a 1+2 rating were deemed to rate the media as accurate, balanced or willing to admit to mistakes and those who rated 4+5 were deemed to rate the media as inaccurate, one-sided or unwilling to admit to mistakes.

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