One of the buzzwords of journalism, and for that matter, society these days, is trust. More often, it’s in connection with the ‘lack’ thereof. In early April, Charlie Beckett, the founding director of POLIS, the think-tank for research and debate into international journalism and society at the London School of Economics, organised a conference on the subject of trust. (Originally published on EBUzz)
The list of speakers was long and diverse. A personal highlight was the debate featuring British journalist and documentary maker Nick Davies, whose investigative reporting helped expose the recent depth of phone hacking conducted by the British tabloid, News of the World. Davies’ focus was falsehood, or unethical behaviour in journalism. The News of the World scandal, he said, was nothing new; there ‘had never been a golden age of journalism.’
Among the panellists was the odd radical romantic. One Conservative British MP even claimed that ‘an internet democracy could rule itself without the need for government!’ What became clear however is the deep-rooted distrust of institutions, and especially politicians in a number of European societies. This leads to the question, must journalists in turn be distrustful, or at the least, sceptical?
It was in my capacity as project leader of Vision2020 that I was invited to address the conference. As you know, the EBU and its Members is seeking to determine how PSM can be perceived as indispensable to its audience. To a large extent, the answer relates to the matter of trust: trust in programmes, as well as the institution of PSM. Operating with integrity touches everything we do: which values are reflected in our content? Do we deliver value for money? Are we accountable and transparent? Do our audiences feel a sense of ownership?
There is also a broader question. We can agree on a charter which emphasizes the sanctity of independence, but do we have the determination to make it more than words?
In my optimism about the future of PSM as a trusted source, I presented best practices from different EBU Members which can help build trust:
- understand your audience
- open the newsroom to the audience
- be self critical
- demonstrate a respectful and service-oriented attitude towards the audience
- ensure diversity across content and staff
- make good programmes popular
When I look at the major trends in the media market, my conclusion is that the need for trusted sources of information is growing. Consider this:
- The increasing complexity of European societies and the need for journalistic analysis.
- The erosion of quality journalism, and the growing influence of PR and spin, (as analyzed by Nick Davies in his book ‘Flat Earth News,’ a must read!).
- Fragmenting audiences and the risk of ‘Foxification,’ whereby facts are assembled to perpetuate a biased news agenda. The polarized American market is a prime example.
- The phenomena of the ‘new kids on the block,’ whereby media moguls (mostly from the US with astonishing buying power and access to global content) exploit the more and more liberal European media market and a changing value chain.
The good news: I’m convinced that the majority of PSM in Europe will be that trusted source, providing we’re willing to change and do our homework.
Audience research indicates most EBU Community Members enjoy a high level of trust (with occasional ups and downs, as the BBC experienced last year). It’s a position of privilege shared by our American colleagues.
A number of Members have begun the task of transforming themselves by engaging with the audience; by investing in slow journalism and authenticity. At the LSE conference, Cilla Benkö shared the example of Swedish Radio (SR), telling participants the pay-off was already being felt. For more inspiration on the roles we can play, check out Charlie Beckett’s address to NPO in Hilversum, the Netherlands, last February.
My conclusion for the future is that in order to maintain – or in some instances, regain trust – we must fundamentally rethink the way we work and make programs.
We have an expression in my homeland of Holland. ‘Trust comes on foot, and leaves on horseback.’ In other words, trust is tough to earn and easy to lose.