According to opinion polls, the coronavirus pandemic has heightened our mistrust of the media and government in the UK. Amid the daily battle cries of ‘fake news’ and transparency issues, Ross Davies tries to make sense of what to believe in the post-truth age

A quick question. Who do you trust most in this world? I’d wager your husband, wife or partner might top the list. Family and close friends too. Those of us who have such people in our lives, on whom we can always depend, should count ourselves lucky.

Enduring relationships are often built on mutual trust. It is when we get to societal institutions that things get complicated. Whether that’s the police, banks or big business – our trust levels tend to waver based on personal experience. And, as recent history testifies, optics around these establishments have not always been favourable.

As COVID-19 has cut its destructive dash across the world, so we’ve looked to two institutions in particular to help us navigate our way through the upheaval: government and the media. Like never before has there been so much at stake in placing our faith in these two pillars of democracy. Our health and well-being are only as good as the information we receive and act upon.

But have you believed everything you’ve read and seen?

Recent opinion polls suggest not. A YouGov survey conducted in April – shortly after the lockdown was enforced in the UK – suggested that roughly two thirds of the British public did not trust television journalists, while three quarters said they did not trust newspaper journalists.

At face value, this would suggest a clear erosion of public faith in journalism. Some MPs and commentators claimed that sharp criticism of the government’s response to the pandemic in some sections of the media was out of step with the mood of the nation. “They failed to adapt and behave appropriately in a crisis,” tweeted health minister Nadine Dorries.

But while some might mistrust the news, never have they needed it more. According to the BBC, up to 94% of the population tuned into the public service broadcaster’s coverage at the height of the pandemic. Similarly, Channel 4 News’s viewing figures reached 14.7 million people in March – three times higher than the same period last year.

So what do we want from our media? To rally around the flag unequivocally in the nation’s hour of need? Or do we need truth spoken to power at every corner?

On one hand, an unpopular press is indicative of a functioning democracy, in which we are free to question what we read. According to Charlie Beckett, Head of Polis, a journalism thinktank at the London School of Economics, trust in the media is also shaped by today’s society’s inclination towards emotionally-driven news rather than sober reportage.

“There’s this idea that journalists are completely accurate and relay solid facts and information,” he says. “I think that’s a bit of myth. There’s always been something of a knee-jerk cynicism around the press in this country. What has changed is that we’re much more driven by what we read according to our interests and our feelings. We like to read things that we agree with.”

The rise of social media has helped create an echo chamber, whereby we are likely to only engage with those who share our own worldview. Twitter and Facebook have also led to the fragmentation of the traditional media landscape, meaning we are able to personally curate how and where we consume every item of news, in contrast to the pre-digital age in which daily newspapers and linear television news bulletins held sway.

The world has also become drastically more polarised in recent years, with US President Donald Trump’s favourite neologism ‘fake news’ a frequent rallying cry in response to journalism we don’t like. There are no longer accepted facts–instead only interpretation.

Welcome to the post-truth age.

Where does all this mistrust stem from? In the UK, questioning the performance of the media and the government during the pandemic reflects a wider public disillusion with institutions that date back to the last decade with the MP’s expenses scandal, phone hacking and Brexit.

“I’d say it actually goes back to post-war Britain,” says Beckett, a former programme editor at ITN’s Channel 4 News. “Since then, both society and the media has become less and less deferential about government. In some ways, that’s a good thing as it’s a sign of people being more questioning and better educated.

“But at the same time, it makes it much harder to have an accepted consensus. This has created a competitiveness in the news industry where the more subjective, aggressive and controversial an article, the more clicks you get.”

Given that COVID-19 has stumped even the world’s most respected scientists, it was inevitable that an information gap would emerge. Various unknows around the transmission and treatment of the virus have been plugged by an infodemic that has spread as quickly as the pandemic itself, from 5G conspiracy theories to quack cures.

NewsGuard is a browser extension that rates the trustworthiness and reliability of news sources. Manned by a team of experienced journalists, it has allocated trust ratings – green for trustworthy, red for unreliable – on over 4,500 news websites. According to co-founder Steven Brill, up to 300 websites have been identified as peddling some form of COVID-19 misinformation in the last six months.

“We’re all susceptible to fake news – even if it’s for just a moment,” says Brill, who launched the US start-up in 2018. “A shocking number of people come across and believe some form of misinformation because everybody can be a publisher on the internet today.”

Fake news is not the same as rumour or lazy journalism. It is instead the deliberate staging of fiction as fact, often motivated by either financial return or political sway. It is this very insidiousness that poses such a threat to honest, fact-based journalism. Another big problem is the way news brands are displayed online – especially on social media – making it difficult to distinguish between legitimate and fake.

“We red-rated a site about six months ago that was up as ‘BBC.news.uk’,” says Brill. “It had exactly the same colour and logo as the actually BBC site, but it was a fake. But if you’re looking at your Facebook feed, you’re likely to see the BBC logo, read the headline and carry on reading.

“One of the more subtle methods of misinformation that we’ve also seen in the US has been the proliferation of politically funded websites that have gone up claiming to be independent, local news sites. They tend to simply write positive stories about political candidates and negative stories against opponents. They’re coming up every day.”

The coronavirus pandemic has also exposed issues relating to government transparency. In June, a Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism survey revealed trust in the UK Government as a source of information about the virus had declined to 48%, compared with 67% in April.

The drop was attributed to the country’s comparatively high death rate, a bungled test-and-trace system roll-out and revelations that Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Chief Adviser, flouted lockdown rules at the height of the pandemic (in contrast, Johnson’s hospitalisation in April, only a month earlier saw good will towards the PM and his cabinet at its highest).

Similarly, across the pond, President Trump’s approval ratings currently stand at a lowly 39%, according to a recent Gallup poll. Trump has been accused by his critics of failing to take seriously a crisis that has so far cost over 137,000 Americans their lives – despite frequent claims that his administration has done “a great job”.

This has made for mixed messaging. Although there is a perhaps case that Trump’s impulsive tweeting of whatever happens to be on his mind at any given time makes him as transparent a modern leader as there has ever been.

Conversely, the politicians and governments that have had ‘good pandemics’ are those praised for effective leadership and strong crisis communications, such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. In the early days of the pandemic, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also received plaudits for his informative, PowerPoint-heavy daily briefings.

“Trust and transparency play a vital role in getting people to comply with directives such as social distancing or staying at home,” says Mauro Guillén, professor of international management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “If people don’t trust the government then it’s much harder to get people to do what they need to do at times like this.”

However, Guillén’s recent research has thrown up some surprising revelations: statistically speaking, there appears to be little evidence to suggest that social democracies have fared any better than dictatorships (not commonly associated with transparency and openness) in their handling of COVID-19.

“I originally thought it would make a difference, but it is not backed up by the evidence,” he says. “So, for an example, Taiwan, a democracy, has done really well, but so has Vietnam [a one-part Communist state]. Then you look at two European countries like Italy and Greece – both democracies but the latter has done amazingly, while the former is one of the worst cases.

“Statistically, that suggests that the biggest factor in all of this has been state capacity, rather than the nature of the political regime, but I suspect that we need to dig deeper. Who is in power can make a big difference, as has been the case in New Zealand.”

According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, 62% of adults in the US get their news from social media. In the UK, the figure is closer to 50% say Ofcom. If the proliferation of fake news is at its worst on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, is there a danger of us being sucked into blackholes of misinformation?

“It is a threat,” says Beckett. “COVID-19 aside, an old-fashioned organisation like the BBC is not the first port of call anymore. But rather than ignore it, it might be time for journalists to start using platforms like TikTok and Instagram to reach new audiences. It’s an opportunity.”

Beckett is optimistic that the cream of legitimate journalism can still rise to the top, (“we’ve seen some excellent reporting throughout the crisis, particularly data journalism”). As is Brill, although he is sceptical of Facebook, Google and Twitter’s forays into fact-checking (In May, Twitter attached a disclaimer to a Donald Trump tweet regarding Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis). “They are still completely unaccountable and non-transparent,” he says.

The enormous tumult that has taken place already this year – with the US presidential election still to come – mean 2020 will go down as a turning point in history. Public faith in the government and media has been tested in some instances. Institutions must strive to regain the public’s trust – democracy depends on it.

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