One of the hallmarks of the last year of US politics has been a steady stream of messages from the president about “fake news” or the “lying media”. Arguably, this has been a mainstay of Trump’s political strategy since he announced his run for the presidency, and it remains a tactic that he employs, and his followers seem to take at face value. So it’s not surprising to learn that in the US, trust in traditional media is at an all time low. In fact, recent research from the American Press Institute and Associated Press shows that 41% of Americans report having hardly any confidence in the traditional press.
What was surprising for me though, as a Canadian researcher, was learning that this is more than just an American issue. In Canada, Statistics Canada reports that only 40% of Canadians report feeling confidence in the national media. With so much information available from so many different sources, it seems as though we just don’t know who or what we should trust anymore. This is true in 2017 and, unfortunately, my research also shows evidence of this trend as early as our Federal election in 2015. We collected thousands of tweets in the month leading up to the 2015 federal election, and we analyzed a sample of them using corpus analysis software along with human content analysis.
During our analysis #cdnmedia was revealed to be a statistically significant hashtag in our sample, meaning that people were employing this hashtag, along with election-related hashtags more than chance alone would dictate. So we looked a little deeper at the content of this hashtag, conducting a discourse analysis of individual tweets, and we found that #cdnmedia was used by a polarized, and right of centre community to indicate a lack of trust in traditional media sources. Tweets accused the mainstream media of maintaining a “cone of silence” with respect to any news that was critical of the Liberal Party of Canada. They also suggested that traditional media, and particularly the CBC was being bribed by the liberal party or that the media themselves were forming a political party of their own. People participating using the #cdnmedia hashtag shared stories that they felt were repressed or underreported by national media, and shared content that they felt supported the Conservative Party of Canada, while bringing to light what they felt was poor behavior from the left of center parties: The Liberals, the NDP and to a certain extent, the Green Party of Canada, and the leaders of these parties.
Recent research on Twitter, both in Canada and Elsewhere has shown that political polarization on Twitter is common, and that people tend to be more likely to first share news, and then go out and act on that news (for example, vote) when the news is negative and also supportive of their pre-existing points of view. This is troubling in and of itself, but I find the lack of trust in traditional media sources even more troubling than the presence of confirmation bias and polarization on Twitter. If the role of traditional media as a trusted 4th estate is in decline, then something of an information vacuum is left in its place, with rumour and conjecture stepping in to fill the void. The traditional media is not a perfect system, however, journalistic professionalism strives to provide information that is, at least most of the time grounded in something more substantive that what “feels” true.
For those of us who pride ourselves on being skeptical of cultural messaging, I think this is a wake-up call. Yes, there are forces at work which drive certain messages forward over others, and yes, those forces often serve the already powerful, but we must be mindful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. While we may be skeptical of traditional news and the gatekeeping function of the media, we must also be wary of other algorithmic or folksonomic gatekeepers that may actually result in a poorer access to information. And for those who work in traditional media, this is also a call to action. You need to start asking yourself what can you do better to engender trust from the public again? And how can you adjust the role of journalist in an information age, to help filter the information overload that leads inevitably to polarization and a decline in trust? This is not an easy task, but it is – I think – an urgent one.