Report: Mainstream media leaves the British public confused and excluded?

1 July, 2009 – Editors Weblog

There is a crisis in trust and communication between the British public and the mainstream media, a new report has concluded. The gulf between public expectations of news provision and the actual nature of articles, which oscillate between esoteric or irresponsible, leaves readers feeling confused and excluded.

The report, entitled ‘Public Trust In The News’ was conducted by researchers from Manchester and Leeds Universities and was published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. It investigated the dynamics of news production and consumption, to ascertain if there is a difference in what ‘the public expects from news media and what journalists mean by serving the public’. The paper highlights the underlying causes of an apparent widespread disenchantment with the media and the detrimental effects this is having on the standards of reporting and civil participation in democracy. Thankfully, the report offers several propositions for a new journalistic direction, which could refresh the reader-writer compact.

The Focus of the Report: Trust and Expectation

The research used focus groups, reflective of a wide range of reading tendencies, which were asked to offer their own expectations of news provision. The issues raised here then formed the basis of the discussion menu set to a group of 14 editors, journalists and reputable bloggers, who described their working practices and perceptions of their services.

The report was driven by a concern for the state of public trust in the media and ultimately governing institutions. The academics leading the study maintain that trust is more than a question of confidence in journalistic accuracy; it is based on the belief that the reporting of stories has a legitimate place in one’s immediate environment. The citizen’s main expectation of news provision are as such: it offers them useful information that facilitates their lives, a distraction and sense of connection with wider communities. News provision fails when it doesn’t meet these conditions.

The investigation found that on several occasions in recent years the British press has fallen short of these standards. The coverage of the US presidential election primaries for example, may have been ‘fair and truthful’ but it failed to supply a large section of the audience with the fundamentals of the election background.

Today’s Problems: Stories are Obscure or Scandalous

The presumption that all readers are familiar with the context of a story is apparently a dangerous problem- the likely effects of confusion is that the reader will either stop reading, or continue but with a sense of exclusion. Moreover, the coverage of many human-interest stories was felt to have been ‘skewed and caricaturised’. The ultimate result is what the report terms a ‘crisis of political efficacy’, in other words, the widely held conviction that there is no longer a communicative relationship between the individual and governing institutions. This points to a serious failure of today’s newspapers, as arguably their raison d’être is to bridge this gulf.

Thus, within this modern ‘ecology’ where ‘reliable information is a rare commodity’, a relatively recent development is becoming increasingly manifest: rather than looking to a newspaper for authoritative accounts, people are turning towards each other, via the Internet, as means of getting to the facts. As a result the Internet has been placed at the ‘epicentre of public knowledge’. A press statement outlining the report highlighted the public’s ‘pervasive trust in online resources as providers of the kind of useful, reliable and amusing information that they defined as news.’ Yet simultaneously, the ‘vastness and abundance of information’ on the web renders users more uncertain than ever that access to such information is helping them become ‘free and self governing citizens’. The Internet has hardly helped to cohere public and official information.

The Future: More Context, More Communication

So what is left for journalists to do in this digital, fragmented space? According to the report, ‘a key mediatory role remains for intelligent and sensitive news journalism’, but that journalism needs to respond to the challenges presented by these cultural trends.

Firstly, journalists should not just assume that people are familiar with the backstory. More efforts need to be made to explain contexts and terminology, both within the printed content and in online applications. The report suggests the use of explanatory pop ups and websites dedicated to basic outlining- an adult version of BBC’s Newsround website for example. Secondly, journalists need to facilitate greater interaction between citizens and public institutions such as local governing bodies, to demonstrate that people can have an influence on the way society is managed. Essentially, this solution asserts the centrality of newspapers in the resolution of the ‘crisis of political efficacy’. This can be done by the encouragement and publication of correspondence between agents. Finally, more initiatives should be in place to help people access and understand the vast amount of information that wasn’t there over a year ago. Journalists can assist in this by the promotion of ideas such as the creation of ‘news groups’ to discuss news stories.

Forums for media dialogue are swollen with ideas about the problems and solutions for the current ‘crisis’ in the press, producing a cacophony of options, which can serve to confuse rather than direct. Moreover, media surveys and reports are constantly producing conflicting results about public perception of the reliability of printed versus online news. This study, however, is most certainly worthy of a close read, as it offers an insight into collective mentalities of modern society towards the presentation of public knowledge. It is essential that reporting teams take heed of what the public expects of their services if trust is to be re-established.

Reuters Institute of Journalism

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