How faith in journalism can be restored in an era of extreme media distrust
By Maxine Ellis
Placards displaying slogans such as “the media is the virus” or “media are the enemy of the people”—on full display during recent trucker protests and anti-mask rallies—highlight an issue that has been plaguing Canadian journalism for years: public distrust.
According to a survey conducted by the International Polling System of Society (IPSOS) in 2021, only 54 per cent of Canadian adults trust what they see on broadcast television newscasts; similar trends can be seen across media.
Michelle Gamage is a Langara Journalism alumni who frequently writes for The Tyee about climate change in B.C.
In her work, Gamage says she often comes across climate deniers who are either conservative about the idea of climate change or explicitly deny its existence.
“If I ever write about anything to do with the Trans Mountain pipeline, I get a certain amount of trolls who show up on my Twitter who just want to yell about how everything that I say is wrong,” says Gamage.
Unprecedented global events like the COVID-19 pandemic have changed how traditional media outlets report the news. Despite these developments, when it comes to how trust in the media has changed in recent years, Gamage says she hasn’t noticed a significant shift in reader attitudes.
“I think people who dislike the media have always disliked the media,” she says.
Francesca Fionda, a freelance investigative journalist and adjunct professor at UBC, says the expansion of the media landscape has affected how people perceive news.
“There’s so much more information available to people now, it can feel overwhelming, and hard to decide and figure out what information is trustworthy out there,” says Fionda. “One of the things I think that’s changed is just the sheer volume of information that people have to sort through. Someone has to do a lot of work to figure out if a source is trustworthy or not; it can do a lot of harm to our media ecosystem.”
According to Gamage, having empathy and building rapport with readers and sources is essential to building public trust in media.
“When people want to gripe about how they can’t trust mainstream media, I get to just be like, ‘Oh, yeah, me too.’ That helps kind of put me on their side,” says Gamage. “When people just have complaints, it’s worth listening to them rather than arguing.”
Gamage says that credible sources make credible journalists, and a healthy dose of skepticism when collecting information will discourage any sources who are looking to promote their own personal agendas.
“Even if you have a really good rapport with a source, you still have to be like, ‘Oh, could you send me the link for that?’ Or, ‘Where could I find out more information about that?’” says Gamage.
For Fionda, bridging the gap between distrustful news consumers and journalists is all about transparency and establishing intentions as a journalist.
“Journalists have a big responsibility, and a big role to play in making sure that people get a voice, and that information that gets out there is accurate and fair,” Gamage says. “I think that’s one way that we can build trust with readers; to really give the community an opportunity to engage with journalists more and share what they think we should be covering.”
Fionda says that the new technologies and platforms available to journalists today— such as social media comment sections—can be used to create transparency for the audience while reporting. But building trust with interview subjects and readers is a process that takes time and effort.
Gamage says that it’s up to the journalist to present readers with healthy skepticism and the desire to learn more.
“I’m telling the truth the best that I can. I’m going to question everything that I am told,” says Gamage. “I’m going to always ask to hear your sources, so that I can try and do everything I can to be telling the truth.”