For a communications professional working in the U.S., the last few months have been a time of intense introspection about the state of the media. The rhetoric has been thick and charged. Phrases like “alternative facts” and “fake news” are making their own headlines. White House press conferences have taken on an element of the absurd. Twitter has become a channel of choice for playing straight to one’s base.
All of this is notable enough. But when the U.S. media as a whole is branded “enemy of the people,” it’s time to step back and assess where we stand. And not simply from inside the U.S. bubble. Taking stock of the state of trust (or lack thereof) in media requires global perspective.
That’s a distinct benefit of being a part of the Public Relations Global Network (PRGN). This tight-knit group of close to 50 independent PR agencies around the world is a global brain trust of insights. So, about a week ago, I shared these questions with our network:
- How is the media viewed in your country or region?
- What stature does is carry?
- And is it trusted?
Responses were varied and insightful. While there were distinctions region to region and country to country, there were powerful common themes. Increased polarization along political lines. Challenges to “traditional” journalistic platforms by a range of upstarts (some more established than others). Intensifying debates about what source is, or is not, legitimate. Government pressures to parrot the party’s line. And the impact of social media in filtering what any one person reads or hears.
Below are the direct insights of PRGN leaders from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America – ending with several perspectives from my country, the U.S. Together, these communication pros paint a compelling picture of a media landscape under pressure and in a state of change.
My biggest personal takeaway is that a free and vibrant press is more fragile than we in the U.S. would like to believe. The ability of journalists to function openly can be all too easily eroded by powerful interests, most critically those in government. And consistent attacks that undermine the role and credibility of the media as a whole are good for no one. Particularly when it comes to sustaining a strong democratic society.
Views from Europe
Since 1989, the media has been perceived as a foundation of democracy in Poland. Independent, free, opinion-making and trendsetting. Journalists were trusted. The liberal media was different from conservative media – but certain lines were not crossed. Time passes. People became polarized. And so does the media. The same events can be described in absolutely different forms by two television stations. Liberal TVN will present the women’s march by placing cameras high above the crowd, showing the scale of the gatherings. The state-owned, conservative party-controlled TVP will dive low into the crowd to show the small number of people standing near the operator. Instead of being a window, media turns into a wall. Each side trusts their media. And trust is very much a relative expression now.
There are parallels to be drawn between Spain and Poland. Poland climbed out of Communism and Spain climbed out of dictatorship. However, Spain went through a civil war leaving the country divided. And more than three quarters of a century later, it still is. As anywhere, governments rely on the press to get their message across. Different media support different ideologies. There is a perception among those over 40 that the media is credible on the whole. The younger generation relies more on social networks and digital news. Political news is very much manipulated regionally – outrageously so. Businesses believe that the media is important to them for getting their message across. Yet they doubt the honorability of journalists. This is principally because they do not see the other side of the coin, nor understand what is needed to get something published.
The media landscape in Sweden is based on four pillars: the public service sector (represented by SVT and SR), the 170-year-old Bonnier empire, the Kinnevik along with its subsidiary MTG (Metro), and several new constellations of players. Press freedom and general liberties are without comparison – they remain among the strongest in the world. The laws regulating and guaranteeing a free press are the first and oldest ones in the world. Of course, the recent situation with faked news on social media, alternative facts and false Twitter / Facebook “journalism” has challenged the established liberal-conservative media.
Christina Rytter – Scandinavian Communications (Denmark):
Most of the media in Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland) – both dailies and verticals – are viewed as very trustworthy and independent. It’s in the Scandinavian journalist DNA that you work with real objective facts, check-up the sources of information, get different point of views in a discussion, etc. Otherwise in Scandinavia, you would be considered a very poor journalist.
The media is in a serious crisis in Hungary. The economic downturn years made the media vulnerable in financial terms, while lately, political pressure has given it another stab. The media environment has transformed in the past few years, with the majority directly or indirectly controlled by the governing political forces. The media now presents two or even three versions of reality (based on political bias). This is too complicated for average readers, who are turning away from media or not trusting it any more. In the meantime, Facebook is becoming widespread as a news resource for many people, with uncontrolled sources and information. This gives way not only to alternate views, but also to alternative facts.
With notions such as “post-truth,” “alternative facts” and “fact-checker” now entering the public debate, the current Romanian media landscape mirrors similar stories from around the globe. Television is still the main information channel of the majority. However, traditional media is losing people’s trust – mainly because of the political influence. Social media (Facebook in particular) has a powerful influence. Involved citizens and alternative means of communication proved to take over the public need for information, leaving behind traditional media. We have fact-checking sites – and an app for the same purpose is under development – but their impact on the wider debate is still small. There is an explosion of conspiracy and fake news sites being shared across social media, but their impact is also limited. The business community is increasingly sensitive to media quality.
Since the days when I was a journalist on a national newspaper (quite a long time ago!) things have changed considerably. Then there was pretty much absolute trust in the media as being independent and upholders of the truth. In most instances this was the case. But in the same way the financial community functioned in the City and the clergy in the Church (based on perceived high moral standards), there were always those who fell short or worked the system. The dawning of the age of transparency and accessibility to facts has meant there are less hiding places. Curiously, this has brought both a wariness and disrespect on one hand – and a willingness to be led on the other. The days when the media’s purpose was to carry news and create debate seem a long way off.
Views from the Middle East & Africa
The media landscape in the Middle East is varied in terms of press freedom and general liberties. Most outlets are either government / political / agenda-driven or corporate platforms used to push certain ideas and narratives (what we would term “fake news”). There are a few more independent organizations, some of which are based outside the region and can therefore more effectively do their jobs. So generally speaking, people do not much trust “traditional” media. Social media has been the go-to-channel for people to get news. Activists used social media to spread their messages and pose counter arguments to the traditional narrative. This was witnessed with the so called Arab Spring, where social media platforms were used to galvanize public opinion against the established foundations of political and social life. Regardless of the results of the Arab Spring, social media participation in our region is huge.
South Africa has a proud and determined tradition of a fiercely free and independent press. There have always been a variety of clearly aligned camps. During Apartheid, the hardline government did all it could to suppress the voice of the opposition by targeting (often imprisoning) journalists and publications hostile to their policies. This led to the rise of small “resistance” papers which successfully did what they could to expose and publish. Our first Democratic president, Nelson Mandela, welcomed the significant role of the press played in overthrowing Apartheid. Initially the African National Congress (ANC) government also welcomed the press, but the honeymoon soured as ANC leaders took the dive into the sewer of corruption and nepotism. So once again the press has come under fire. Experienced journalists have been forced out and replaced by inexperienced people who toe the government line. The good news is that once again there is a rise of small opposition media to which readers can turn for relatively untainted news.
Views from Asia
Two news organizations in Singapore have the monopoly of both the print and broadcast media. Because the editorial teams hold accuracy of their news in high regard, the public trust the information disseminated by them. But because the government “intervenes” by giving them guidelines on what they should not highlight, or play down issues on grounds of national interest such as religious or racial sensitivity, this has caused many of their viewers and readers to turn away to alternative news sources.
In general, in Japan we don’t have fake news and we don’t have a definition of fake news. People understand that gossip exists. But the traditional media reports the truth and people don’t get confused between them. In cases where a news source was not sure, was misled or inaccurate, usually the media outlet will make amendments or corrections – but this rarely happens. We simply keep telling the truth to media and respect the value of their compliance.
Views from South America
In Argentina, we had a combined 12-year rule of President Kirchner and his wife Cristina Kirchner. They had a strategy to divide the population. They boosted and encouraged media associated with their government – assuring an alternative access to public opinion and avoiding the traditional reputable media. The misrepresentation of facts and statistics is the most accurate proof of this media manipulation. The next problem was the harsh persecution of those who thought differently; they were silenced and discredited. The government even went to the extent of pushing sponsors to cancel advertisements in independent or opposition media. Over time, journalists and media began to lose prestige. The Kirchners lost the last election. We are coming back to normal practices in journalism. But great damage was done. Today, over 70 percent of public opinion about the media is negative.
Views from the U.S.
For California and San Francisco, we rely on the media to tell us the truth. The media is a trusted partner in the democratic process. Without them, we have fascism. But we also recognize that one has to use critical judgment and garner information from many different news sources before making one’s own decisions about the topic at hand. We do not view the media as an enemy, but as an important part of making sure our country runs properly.
Among consumers, I am surprised, shocked and dismayed to hear them say media is biased, even conspiring. This cuts across demographics in my sphere. I would look to an established news organization (say Dow Jones’ Wall Street Journal) as having a respectable news operation, independent of the editorial page. Some I know would flatly disagree, and not be open to discussion.
Unfortunately, the answer seems to depend on politics and personal beliefs. The Trump Administration’s consistent characterization of the press as biased, unbalanced and untruthful is a strategic and divisive tactic meant to rally supporters, create doubt and deflect attention away from the issues of the day. At the same time, this steady drumbeat of verbal abuse has also backfired – as reporters and news outlets across the country are beginning to band together and speak out against generalizations that undermine their work and journalistic integrity. So is the media trusted? It depends on who you ask. But the news business has never been one to cower under political pressure
It is tempting to reply through the filter that shapes my opinion – that legitimate media is held in high regard and looked to as a trustworthy source of objective information that the public would often not receive on its own. But the situation is quite different. Individual views of the media are often closely linked to political beliefs. You will hear from even successful and accomplished business executives that the press is “out to get” the president. I cannot tell you how common that thinking is.
This question opens the door to defining who “the media” is in today’s world. While I believe reporters for the traditional media outlets (think Wall Street Journal, New York Times) are still held in high esteem, other outlets are clearly presenting facts in a manner that reflects a specific viewpoint. (I actually saw someone during the U.S. presidential elections turn the channel to CNN because they resented the coverage that was being shown on FOX News.) Is the media trusted? While in the past the media was deemed a viable and dependable source, I’ve seen the needle move. Now it’s moving toward “trust, but verify.”
What are your thoughts about the state of the media? Leave a comment below or tweet us @LandisComm.
This blog was originally posted on the PRGN website – see it here.