“Trust me, I’m a journalist”

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.

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Joshua Gans
15 years ago

A datum like ‘19% of people trust journalists’ is obviously pretty meaningless by itself, though useful for discerning a trend over time, in the same way that trends in ‘approval ratings’ for politicians tell us something even if we don’t know what they mean. But do you think these numbers are useful for comparing attitudes to different professions, given that trust can have such different meanings in different contexts. Does it mean the same thing to trust a physician as to trust a journalist?

Tambourine Man
Tambourine Man
15 years ago

Bear in mind this is a UK survey and anyone who has worked in the popular UK media will tell you that they operate on a different standard over there. English journalists routinely make stuff up and manufacture quotes. I’ve seen it countless times over the years.

The other observation I’d make is that when people say they don’t trust “journalists” what they often mean is they don’t trust “the media”. And believe it or not, they are two separate things.

Andrew Bartlett
15 years ago

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.

I appreciate that I am probably biased, jaundiced and generally curmudgeonly on this topic, but I think it is none the less quite reasonable to state that there are plenty of occasions where journalists massage facts and conceal (or ignore) information which doesn’t suit what they want to write.

One can also just as accurately say that politics done well or social activism done well can also often be dirty work (in the good sense of the word ‘dirty’ as in hard and tough, not nasty or corrupt). It can also be less professionally and personally rewarding doing the job well (in the good sense of the word ‘well’ as in acting in the public interest, not in the sense often used (especially by journalists) when they say someone is a ‘good’ politician).

While it’s true that this is a UK survey, most surveys of a similar type from Australia that I’ve seen place journalists in a similarly low position – usually also a bit below politicians. I wonder where bloggers would sit.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Andrew – Where would bloggers sit? A 2006 BBC/Reuters/Media Center Poll on ‘Trust in the Media‘ asked about bloggers. Their question about trust was different to the question in the MORI poll so it’s not directly comparable:

When asked which news sources they trust the most, UK citizens give the highest ratings to national television (86% a lot or some trust), friends and family (78%), national/regional and local newspapers (both 75%), and public broadcast radio (67%), and the lowest ratings to blogs (24%), news web sites on the Internet (44%), and international newspapers (55%).

I have no argument with your ‘curmudgeonly’ comments.

Andrew Bartlett
15 years ago

Thanks Don

No wonder so few politicians blog then – although 24% trustworthiness is probably still higher than what politicians (or journalists) normally rate. I wonder if a blogging politician would be less trustworthy than a blogging journalist?

(I shan’t ask about blogging ex-politicians – someone might answer)

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
15 years ago

Though as I have noted in looking at supposed trust levels in politicians, ratings for individual politicians – even politicians like John Howard who have endured many years of campaigns to paint them as untrustworthy – are are above those of politicians in general.

Surveys like this generate cliched responses that are not necessarily used in judging particular politicians/journalists/bloggers/whatever in specific circumstances.