Do you trust the media?

Sunday 29 October, 14:0015:30, Frobisher 4-6Contemporary Controversies


Anyone who argues ‘It must be true – I read it in the paper’, is now seen as naïve, especially in the wake of debates about fake news. This is not just Trump-like scepticism about the mainstream media (MSM). The growth of alternative news outlets across the political spectrum, and the increasing influence of high-profile bloggers and social media ‘commentators’ as reliable sources, indicates a broader crisis of trust. The media are regularly accused of hype, bias and fuelling a sense of panic about the risks we face over everything from terrorism to chlorinated chicken. Yet surely we can expect the media to provide accuracy and to be more trustworthy as they have access to ever more ‘facts’, especially in today’s statistics-rich, data-driven, evidence-based policy climate.

One problem is that what is seen as factual is disputed and there are constant rows about what the media should report as valid ‘evidence’, itself a contentious category. As the old adage puts it, there are three kinds of deceit: lies, damned lies and statistics. Consider the widely repeated ‘one in four’ statistic? Is it likely that so many of society’s problems – from mental health to domestic violence victims – neatly fit into an exact 25 per cent of the population, as so many NGOs claim about the particular issue they are lobbying about? Meanwhile, the findings of epidemiological studies are notoriously susceptible to confounding factors and correlation does not always equal causation, despite a lazy assumption that it does. Elsewhere, the results of computer models hide a variety of prior assumptions and can only ultimately be speculative. The picture is further complicated by the emergence of Big Data. So while computers can do the heavy lifting in collating and processing data and analysing huge pools of data, said to allow hitherto unrecognised relationships to be identified and new hypotheses to be formed, the choices about which data to collect are made by humans and are often driven by researchers’ own biases or priorities set by funders and fashion.

In an ideal world, the media would take the time to treat data-driven and statistical claims critically. But while many journalists try their best to explain complex issues, in hard-pressed news rooms working to tight deadlines, it is often easier to rehash one expert’s press release than make a few calls to other experts to get a different point of view. And whose expert evidence should journalists report? There is often scepticism about the reliability of corporate ‘facts’ or politicians’ claims, while the likes of NGOs and charities – who also represent vested and partial interests – are regularly treated as inherently trustworthy. Journalists counter that their efforts are hampered by an array of lobbyists, press officers and political agendas, but where does that leave readers seeking the truth? While attempts have been made to counterbalance this trend – such as Full Fact and Channel 4’s Fact Check – the reality is that caricatured, inaccurate scare stories or simplistic sound-bites can get far more attention than the subsequent attempt at a correction. As Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710: ‘Falsehood flies and the Truth comes limping after it.’

Who can journalists trust out of the overwhelming selection of competing interests to act as reliable sources? Can anyone play the role of the ‘honest broker’? How can the public untangle dubious, pseudo-scientific advice and dodgy stats from facts and truth? How can we know whether journalism, particularly reporting on complex issues or assessing notoriously difficult ideas such as risk, is accurate? Should we accept that it is our responsibility as citizens to check the facts for ourselves or should we demand that the media improve its handling of statistics and data?