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Opinion: Media distrust has reached dangerous territory—how can we turn it around?

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A 2021 report found that out of 1,500 Canadians surveyed, 49 per cent believed journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people.

It’s a challenge to scroll through social media for more than five minutes without feeling your eyes start to roll upward these days. I’d hazard a guess that’s the case for a lot of Canadians, regardless of which side of the increasingly wide political divide you stand on. 

After that mild annoyance was replaced by disbelief when Russian president Vladimir Putin decided to launch a full-scale invasion into Ukraine last month, I’ll admit to having a darkly optimistic thought that, at least, considering this war a bad idea is something we can all be on the same page about.  

Until I saw a couple of Instagram stories pop up with a promise to explain what’s “actually” happening in Ukraine. No, Putin isn’t invading his sovereign neighbour in an effort to restore glory to the Soviet Union or re-establish Russia’s position as a global superpower, they explained. He’s not lashing out in response to Ukraine’s desire to join NATO. The attack isn’t even aimed at “denazifying” Ukraine, as Russian citizens are being led to believe. As one North-American man rationalized in a reel shared among some circles, Putin is instead on a heroic crusade to obliterate U.S.-funded bioweapon labs in the area. 

(These conspiracies have been widely debunked by enough reputable sources that I won’t even bother repeating them.)

But these posts’ main point? “This is what Western mainstream media doesn’t want you to see.” 

Aside from sparking another involuntary eye-roll, those claims made me revisit a question that I, and probably a lot of other journalists, ask themselves on a routine basis. Why do so many people hold such a strong distrust for news media? 

That distrust isn’t even attributable to a small-but-loud segment of the population: A 2021 report by communications firm Edelman that surveyed 1,500 Canadians, as cited by CBC News, found 49 per cent of respondents believed journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations, while 52 per cent agree that most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public. Fifty-two per cent of Canadians also agree the media is not doing well at being objective and non-partisan, according to the survey. (I’ll just take this quick opportunity to remind readers that as a publicly-funded broadcaster, CBC is accountable to an independent ombudsman for meeting journalistic standards and practices.) 

Like a lot of problems, I think this one comes down to a lack of understanding, among too many other factors to list here. 

First, I can promise the many journalists I know have no intentions of ever trying to purposely mislead the audiences they work hard to serve. I think the increasing polarization of news outlets in the U.S. over the past few decades has bled over the border in a way that has prompted some audiences to call “bias!” when reporting doesn’t line up with their beliefs. As The Walrus editor-in-chief Jessica Johnson wrote in last year’s O’Hagan Essay on Public Affairs, published in December 2021, “If audiences once treated outlets as authorities, we now follow news based on its relevance to our interests.”

I also think the conglomeration of legacy media (think CTV, Global, The Globe and Mail—sources a lot of people might refer to as “mainstream”) has contributed to an apparent belief that there are bigger forces out there—I like to picture it as a Wizard of Oz-type character hiding out in a boardroom, plotting with Justin Trudeau—telling reporters what and what not to publish. 

But news media is still a business like anything else, even when it’s publicly funded. I can see why some question how big an influence the institutions funding journalism have on those outlets’ editorial content. (In almost every case, the answer is none.) As Johnson explained in her essay, “I’m not that worried about objectivity in professional journalism: media has always been funded by someone, whether a beauty brand or an automaker—it just hasn’t been the customer."

The industry is struggling for more reasons than public distrust: traditional funding models just aren’t working like they used to, and journalists are, for the most part, being asked to do more with less resources. Some outlets are experimenting with not-for-profit status or finding moderate success with subscription-based funding, but changing a business' entire financial structure is difficult when news is largely viewed as a public service most audiences aren’t accustomed to paying for. 

Regardless of how audiences feel, journalism’s main purpose is to keep the public informed, in large part by holding government and institutions accountable. In order to do so the industry needs to win that trust back.

So what can we do to try and repair this deepening rift? 

I don’t know that there’s one answer, but I’d argue it’s going to take transparency from news organizations and hard work from journalists to keep telling every side of the story. It’s also going to take critical thinking and open-mindedness from audiences—because approaching the information you’re consuming from a place of unwavering distrust is arguably as damaging as approaching it with blind belief.