Tara Henley: Trump, Big Tech, polarization: The media blames everything but itself for loss of trust

Media execs are heavy on platitudes and light on specifics
Former President Donald Trump, center, speaks to the media upon arriving at New York Supreme Court on Oct. 2, 2023. Seth Wenig/AP Photo.

The question of declining trust in media has never been more pressing, with just 37 percent of Canadians saying they trust most news, most of the time and it’s a conundrum that the legacy media is, very wisely, now attempting to address.

Trust Talks,” a live event earlier this month in Toronto, brought together prominent news leaders to ponder the state of journalism and its future.

Unfortunately, the event wound up illustrating why trust is so low in the first place.

The discussion was moderated by CBC host Nahlah Ayed, an accomplished interviewer who found herself in the unenviable position of trying to coax some level of self-reflection out of media bosses that appeared unwilling, or unable, to offer it. The panel was made up of usual-suspects executives, including The Toronto Star’s Irene Gentle (sitting in for social and racial justice columnist Shree Paradkar), CBC’s Brodie Fenlon, and Global’s Sonia Verma, and the lineup itself cast doubt on whether the public’s specific reservations about the press would be addressed.

The turnout certainly seemed to reflect that perception. The 500-seat Isabel Bader Theatre was at best half full, and that was with free tickets, free food, and a delayed start time of about 15 minutes, which allowed for late stragglers. Judging from pre-show chats taking place around us, the crowd was largely made up of people from the same social milieu, many of whom knew each other. (Exceptions included a contingent of local journalism students, and several young activists who, during the Q&A, confronted the panelists about their coverage on the Middle East.)

CBC president Catherine Tait set the tone for the evening with her opening remarks, quoting Charles Dickens—“it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”—and then moving on to highlight concerns around social media, misinformation, the online harassment of journalists, and the irresponsibility of Big Tech. Tait made it clear, from the outset, that the event would be about blaming the media’s demise on pretty much anyone but the media itself.

Irene Gentle followed Tait’s lead, mainly focusing her comments throughout the evening on external pressures on the news, which included a range of factors from news indifference to hostility from “haters,” online harassment, Donald Trump, intentional disinformation, “deadly” disinformation, the speed of the news cycle, a catastrophic loss of advertising revenue, and atomized attention in the broader society. Bizarrely, Gentle also pointed to the negative impact of some journalistic norms, like publishing corrections, on the public’s faith in our work.

Sonia Verma, meanwhile, stressed how expensive news is to produce, and lamented the fact that Big Tech has taken the media’s advertising revenue without compensating us for our content. “You have these platforms that are not only taking our ad dollars,” she said, “but also, they don’t have any of the responsibilities or accountabilities that we do as credible news organizations.”

For his part, Brodie Fenlon laid the responsibility for declining trust on social media algorithms driven by emotional reactions, as well as on a polluted information ecosystem, political polarization, Donald Trump, the deprioritization of news on platforms like Twitter/X and Facebook, and the global phenomenon of news avoidance and news fatigue. He also pointed to people who discredit news organizations.

“There’s really compelling evidence that the more criticism there is of media — and I mean coordinated, orchestrated criticism — the more of an impact it has on the decline in trust,” Fenlon said. “Surprise, surprise, when you tell people regularly that the media are the enemy of the people, people start to believe it.”

To be fair, though, the night was not without glimmers of hope.

Gentle admitted that the media had been overly credulous in its embrace of social media, when we should have perhaps been more critical.

Verma called for more diversity of thought in newsrooms. “A healthy newsroom is a newsroom where there’s healthy debates, and people with different points of view,” she said.

Fenlon, to his credit, also acknowledged that our media has an issue with viewpoint diversity. Diversifying our newsrooms means racial and cultural diversity, he said, “but also political and geographic diversity, because a lot of people don’t see themselves, either in the newsrooms or in the coverage.” He went even further, later in the discussion: “Most newsrooms now, because of the pullback from local, tend to be in large urban centres, with good transit. We, as journalists, I mean, our journalists will disagree with this, but we are well-paid, when you compare ourselves to the average income in this country. Politics can be progressive in newsrooms.” (Verma also conceded that media bubbles are a real issue.)

Notably, all three leaders advanced few arguments framed around identity politics.

Still, the event was ultimately unsatisfying, heavy on platitudes and light on specifics.

And anyone who interacts with the public regularly knows that most people don’t distrust the media for vague reasons, but for extremely specific ones. (This was borne out by several questions from the audience, which referenced stories by outlet and date, quoting the exact claims and the exact language that they took issue with.)

One cannot help but wonder, then: Why was there so little discussion throughout evening about specific news coverage? Why were there so few acknowledgements of mistakes that have been made?

Why not ask ourselves: How was our coverage of the pandemic, a once-in-a-century crisis? How did we do on controversial stories like the lab leak theory, lockdowns, school closures, and vaccine mandates? Were we critical enough of government? The expert class? Corporate power?

While we’re at it: How did we do on the racial reckoning of 2020?

And, now that the dust has settled—and the Public Order Emergency Commission has released thousands of exhibits and hundreds of hours of testimony—how does our coverage of the trucker crisis, and the invocation of the Emergencies Act, stack up to the available facts?

One also can’t help but ask: Why was there almost no reference at the event to common complaints from the public? Let alone any inclusion of its critics on the panel. (Fenlon made a nod to such accountability at one point in the conversation: “We’re not actually, and I’ll put myself at the front of the line, we’re not very good when questioned ourselves.” One way that Fenlon could have demonstrated a desire to remedy this, in real time, would have been to unpack a few of the trends in complaints that the CBC’s Ombudsman has documented.)

Here are some other key questions that we in the media should ask ourselves:

How do we respond to members of the public that believe that we are no longer just reporting the facts, but actively trying to influence their opinion?

How exactly are we in the media doing on bias? How many conservatives are employed in our newsrooms, or journalists from working-class backgrounds, or people without university degrees, or those with rural or religious backgrounds? And how do we think through the claim that the media is overly influenced by “woke” ideology?

Without asking ourselves such difficult questions, we can’t get to the crux of declining public trust in our work.

So it came as little surprise, then, that the leadership on stage the other night did not have much to offer in the way of concrete solutions, beyond fostering media literacy in the public, essentially urging it to do a better job of seeking out and supporting our journalism. Such a sentiment, of course, comes across as condescending and fundamentally dismissive of both the public’s intelligence and its good intentions.

The thing about trust, I’m afraid, is that it is a two-way street.

If we in the media want the public to listen to us, we must first listen to them. And if we expect the public to trust us, we’re going to have to start by trusting them.

This column originally appeared on Lean Out with Tara Henley.

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