Journalists are ranked as the least trustworthy profession according to a recent UK poll by Ipsos MORI. While 92% of respondents said that they generally trusted doctors to tell the truth, only 19% said that they trusted journalists. At 60%, even the "ordinary man or woman in the street" ranked higher.
Not surprisingly, the poll was commissioned by the Royal College of Physicians. Doctors have come out on top every year since the survey began in 1983. The only competition has come from teachers who tied for first place in 1993. And journalists haven’t always ranked last. In a small number of polls, government ministers, politicians or trade union officials have taken last place.
With such low levels of trust in journalists, you might wonder why Brits bother to buy newspapers or sit through the tv news. Has news finally become more about entertainment than information?
Things aren’t as bad as this poll makes them seem. For a start, 66% of respondents to the MORI poll said that they trusted tv news readers to tell the truth. And when YouGov asked respondents a similar question but split journalists up into a range of categories, they got a range of responses. BBC News journalists were trusted by 62% while tabloid newspaper journalists were trusted by only 7% (pdf).
It’s possible that many people have generally negative attitudes towards journalists and that these bleed into their responses to the question on trust. As Margaret Simons writes, getting sources to reveal information often "involves making people angry, or hurting them". Everyone’s seen tv journalists thrusting microphones into the faces of grieving parents or running footage of fat people stuffing their faces with chips and hamburgers. Journalists can often seem callous and insensitive. And everyone has a story about someone they know who’s been misled by a journalist before being interviewed or who’s been quoted out of context.
But as Simons writes, "journalism done well is often dirty work". Politicians, corporate flaks, and social activists are all in the business of concealing information and massaging facts. Nice polite interviews aren’t likely to get these sources to reveal the kind of information a journalist needs in order to write an accurate, complete and balanced story.
Political scientist John Zaller argues that citizens don’t need the media to keep them fully informed about all significant public and political issues. After all, most citizens are occupied with their own private affairs. What they need is a media which alerts them when something goes badly wrong: "the idea is to call attention to matters requiring urgent attention, and to do so in excited and noisy tones."
Like a kitchen smoke alarm that goes off when you blacken your toast, journalists may sometimes get noisy and excited over things that don’t matter. But what’s important is that the public trust that serious news journalists will notice and sound off about the things that do. Asking about that would make for an interesting survey.