Digital news check: In media, we don’t trust

Trust in News in NZ
The 2021 Trust in News in New Zealand survey has found the level of overall trust falling from 53 percent in 2020 to 48 percent in 2021. Image: Newsroom/Getty

ANALYSIS: By Tim Murphy and Mark Jennings, co-editors of Newsroom

Less than half the New Zealand public now professes “overall trust” in news media outlets, despite big rises in audience numbers during the covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis.

The 2021 Trust in News in New Zealand survey released yesterday found the level of overall trust falling from 53 percent in 2020 to 48 percent in 2021 and trust in the news sources used by respondents themselves falling by 7 points from 62 percent to 55 percent.

The drops in NZ mirrored international research findings in the Reuters Digital News Report 2020, which put trust in media at the lowest level since it began seeking such data in 2016.
But our overall trust figure at 48 percent remains high compared to the international average of 38 percent.

The local survey of 1200 people, run online nationwide by Horizon Research in March on behalf of AUT’s research centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy found all news brands experienced erosion in trust over the 12 months, with Newshub and Newstalk ZB suffering “statistically significant” falls.

Media trust score for NZ brands
Trust score for New Zealand news brands in 2020 and 2021. Image: Trust in media 2021 report

Respondents were asked to rate 11 media brands out of 10 for trustworthiness (with 10 being completely trustworthy). Average scores out of 10 were calculated from those who knew of each source.

“In general, trust in the news has declined because the news media is seen as increasingly opinionated, biased, and politicised,” says JMAD co-director Dr Merja Myllylahti.

The survey shows New Zealanders want factual information and not opinion dressed up as news, the researchers say.

While news organisations reported fully on the covid outbreak and were rewarded with big rises in readership, viewership and even user donations, the ebbing away of trust will puzzle some newsrooms.

The JMAD report suggests reasons for mistrust in the media include:

  • political bias, especially in talkback radio (“They’re pretty right-wing”)
  • politicisation of media
  • media pushing certain social/other agenda (including climate change)
  • media offering opinions, not factual news and information
  • not offering a full picture of events
  • selective reporting
  • poor standard of journalism, including poor sourcing, factual mistakes, poor grammar and low standard of writing

Readers’ trust in news encountered on social media is particularly low, at 14 percent (down 2) in New Zealand and 22 percent (down 1) internationally, and just 12 percent here would trust social media for good news and information on the pandemic.

New Zealand media trust ranking
How New Zealand compares to selected other countries over trust in media. Image: Trust in media 2021 report

Trust in news in New Zealand is clearly below Finland, Portugal and Turkey, but much higher than in countries such as Australia, the US and the UK.

The most trusted sources for news and information on the covid-19 virus and pandemic were RNZ and TVNZ, both state owned.

RNZ riding high in online audience
Not only is RNZ the country’s most trusted news source, it has also surged in the online readership stakes, overtaking TVNZ and now closing in on Newshub for third biggest website audience in the latest, March, Nielsen monthly ratings.

In first place, has pushed back to its near record monthly unique audience at 1.95 million, with Stuff – at 1.77m – now around 300,000 down on its own highs of 2.1m due to removing its content from Facebook. Newshub recorded 890,000, just holding off RNZ at 860,000, with 1News some distance back among the second tier sites, at just 720,000.

The audience now is about 60 percent higher than before the Covid-19 pandemic hit a year ago, having spiked like those of many news outlets at the beginning of the outbreak in March and April 2020, but unlike some, holding on to much of its gain.

Stuff is no longer officially part of the Nielsen measurement, so its monthly unique number would be less reliable than others, but the Herald site went past it last year and has not been bested for months on end. When Stuff left Facebook, it was anticipated its total audience would drop as most sites receive major contributions to their readership from referrals from the social media giant.

If the government’s mooted merger of TVNZ and RNZ into a new public broadcaster comes to fruition, the joint public news website could be expected to be a serious challenger (even when the current, separate Nielsen audience numbers are unduplicated) to the Stuff and pairing at the pinnacle of online audiences.

Newsroom is not part of the Nielsen survey.

Discovery discovers cost cutting
It was always going to be on the cards. Four months after taking over MediaWorks’ television arm, Discovery Inc is looking to make cost savings.

The process of talking to staff began last week and will play out over the next couple of months. The company is positioning the cuts as the integration of its Australasian businesses.

Discovery already owned the small free-to-air channels, Choice and HGTV when it bought Three, Bravo, and Edge TV off MediaWorks. Sales and back office functions are obvious areas for rationalisation, although the savings are likely to be minor.

In Australia, free-to-air channel, 9Rush is a joint venture between Discovery Inc and Nine entertainment. Discovery also supplies content to Aussie pay TV networks Foxtel and Fetch.

MediaWorks sold its TV arm because it had been losing millions year after year and dragging the profitable radio operation down. Discovery’s options to cut the loses seem limited unless it gives Three a supply of cheap reality programming, but this risks a ratings drop as TVNZ further ramps up its local production.

Three’s news operation is unlikely to escape the cost-cutters’ attention. Sources say Newshub is part of the cost review but staff are likely to be redeployed rather than axed.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz
Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom. This Newsroom article is republished with permission.

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