An Uphill Start

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In 2016, Israelis’ trust in the mass media reached an all-time low. But the decline seems to have bottomed out then; the increase in trust registered in 2017 has continued this year. With this additional rise of three percentage points, today 31% have some or great trust in the Israeli media. This is still low as compared to many other institutions, but is all the same a change.

The rise in public trust in the media is important, because there is a close correlation between trust in the media and trust in other societal and governmental institutions. This correlation is reflected in the data published a few months ago by the Pew Research Institute, which ranked Israel relatively low on this indicator: our trust in both the mass media and the government is lower than that in the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, and Sweden. 

The decline in public trust in the media is troubling, but also reassuring, because it may indicate that we have become more aware of the media’s inherent biases. Nevertheless, past research into the link between trust and transparency found that the drop in trust is generally short-term, and followed by a rebound. This is one reason why our society supports transparency: we believe that in the long term it leads to the exposure and correction of shortcomings—which in turn leads to increased public trust in the governing institutions. And this is just what we are seeing here. The decline has halted, and public trust in the media is once again on the rise. .

We could end with this, and say simply that the recovery in public trust reflects the fact that the Israeli media applied the required remedies, especially through its wider coverage of internal corruption, attempts to counter slanted journalism, and an accelerated process of diversification and inclusiveness, manifested in the entrenchment of outlets associated with the right wing and the appearance of solidly rightwing journalists in other outlets.

In practice, though, the situation seems to be more complex. In simple terms, if the rise in public trust reflected a perception that the media have healed themselves, we would not be seeing figures such as the 58% who believe that the media are corrupt, or the mere 11% who believe that the media are the most effective means for combating corruption, as against the 51% who think that deterrent punishment is the best method.

Another indicator that this is not a reflection of self-correction by the media is that these figures reflect trends internationally and not just in Israel. What is more, the growing trust masks serious social polarization and an enormous gap between the center-left and the right on this issue.

In other countries, too, the data indicate that there was a decline in trust in the media some years ago, followed by a rise in the last two years. This picture leads to the realization that we are dealing with a broader phenomenon that has to do with the relations between the establishment media and social networks, and not just internal self-correction by the Israeli media.

The Gallup survey of public trust in the media in the United States, which has been conducted annually for many years, indicates that if it seemed that 2016 was a nadir from which no recovery was possible, the trend has reversed itself in the last two years. Among Democrats, 76% trusted the media in 2018, the highest figure since 1997. Among Independents, the tally was 42%, the highest figure since 2005. Even among Republicans there was a rebound, from only 14% in 2016 to the still abysmal 21% today. Even if public trust has not yet returned to the levels of the 1990s, the precipitous decline has been checked.

The Edelman Trust Barometer registered very similar figures for the United Kingdom.

The similar declines in public trust in the media in all the three countries should be of no surprise. The increased public awareness of media bias and self-interest was catalyzed in part by the social networks, which have become huge sites of media criticism, where all users can share with their friends, followers, and in fact the whole world, what they read in the paper and explain why it is false, biased, or corrupt.

But the social networks, which triggered the exposure of media outlets’ hidden interests, are beginning to lose their charm. After the social networks burst onto the scene in the mid-aughts, we witnessed a sharp transition from trust in authority, authority figures, and institutions, to confidence in the “little guy,” in one’s social-network friends, in “people like me.” There seemed to be no further need for institutional media, editors with an agenda, or persons whose job is to determine which news items we consume, when we can acquire all the information we need through our Facebook feed.

In the last two years, though, the public has become aware of the biases that are also inherent to social networks—their ability to tailor messages to carefully segmented groups, “fake news,” and the viral spread of disinformation; of the interference by foreign countries and cynical political campaign managers to manipulate public opinion; and of the phenomenon of “echo chambers” and the social and political polarization on the networks. In short, the last two years have demonstrated that the social media are not, as we wanted to believe, a new platform for a fair and equal public discourse, but rather--channels for advertising aimed at maximizing profit at any given moment. In this sense, the rebound in trust in the institutional media reflects disappointment with the social networks and highlights the yearning for a responsible adult who can provide meaning and context to what is taking place: people are not looking for trust, but for truth.

Data from the Edelman Global Truth Barometer, which compares trust in public and governmental institutions in many countries, supports this conclusion.

Similar numbers indicate that in Great Britain, too, the low point of public trust in the establishment press, registered in 2015–2016, coincided with the high-water mark of trust in the social networks. But after that, the trend reversed sharply.

We may assume that there is a similar trend—a loss of faith in the social networks and a rise in trust in the traditional media—in Israel. This may be the golden opportunity for the establishment media to recover the role of the responsible adult in conveying the situation to people, who evidently need such mediation when performed by local companies whose intention is the pursuit of social good and not only the maximization of profits for global corporations.

But an analysis of the recent turnaround in the trend of trust in the media by political identification reveals a disturbing phenomenon. Whereas center-left voters’ trust in the media has almost doubled (from 34.5% to 62.5% among voters for leftwing parties), the increase among those who place themselves on the right was more modest by far (from 10% to 15%); and in any case, rightwing voters’ trust in the media is very low. That is, there is a sharp polarization between left and right as to the perception of the reliability of the Israeli media.

If the media really have shifted course and diversified, and are no longer as “leftist” as in the past, the change should be reflected in a significant jump in the trust felt by voters on the right. The data show that this has not occurred. Although among them as well, the trend, has reversed direction and begun to rise, it remains very low, and the gap between the blocs is vast.

This gulf reflects the growing polarization between the blocs in Israel in general with regard to their underlying trust in democratic institutions, but it might also indicate that the measures we are looking at do not reflect public trust in the institutions but rather--people’s attitude towards those who attack those institutions. 

Support for this hypothesis may be derived from a close look at the rise in trust in a public institution that resembles the media in some ways—the police. They are similar because, in addition to their manifold other duties they also serve as gatekeepers, especially with regard to corruption in high places, reaching all the way to the top. Trust in the police, too, reached an all-time low in 2016, followed by a moderate rebound.

When broken down by sectors, however, the data indicate that this trust is not shared equally by all Israelis; among those who identify themselves as politically rightwing—the situation is stable, offset by a sharp rise among the center-left. The polarization about the police is interesting, because, like the diversification of the Israeli media, in recent years the inspector general of the Israel Police has been from the right. On the surface, there are ample reasons for the right to feel greater confidence in the police. Nevertheless, in fact –it is the voters for the center and left parties who are responsible for the increased trust in these two institutions. 

This leads to the disturbing question of whether the data in fact indicate public trust in the media and police, or instead embody a reaction to the attacks on these institutions by the Prime Minister and his backers. Is it possible that the increased trust does not stem from an improvement in how the media and police operate, but rather from an attempt to create a counterweight, as those on the left and center perceive it, to the ongoing attempt to undermine these institutions’ legitimacy? 

Another interesting figure that may shed light on the polarization between left and right with regard to trust in the media is that something similar can be seen in the United States. There the gulf between Democrats’ and Republicans’ trust in the media has expanded to 55 percentage points. That is, there has been an increase in trust among Republicans as well, but the disparity between the two is huge, both in the size of the increase and in the absolute percentages.

What is common to Israel and the United States in recent years is the extensive use that the top leaders (mainly Netanyahu and Trump) have made of the tactic of attacking the establishment media as part of their overall governing strategy. The concept of “fake news” is exploited to assail the traditional media; in both countries the ugly relations between the national leaders and the media have long since exceeded the appropriate balance for a democracy and degenerated into a combat with daggers fought mainly in the social media.

There is no doubt that this tactic contributed to the plummeting public trust in the media, but it can also explain the reversal of the trend. The answer, it would seem, lies in a phrase beloved of political scientists: the “principal-agent problem.” This means that elected officials give priority to their own interests over, and at the expense of the interests of the voters who put them in office. We may now be seeing a situation in which the public no longer buys the “blame the media” line as the explanation of all of the leader’s failures and has come to understand that although such a frontal attack on the media may contain some grains of truth, it also conceals a large helping of political self-interest rather than concern for the public welfare. This perception of the principal-agent problem is what has led the center and left—who in any case do not have any faith in the agent in question—to place greater trust in the media. But the small increase in trust among voters on the right shows that they too no longer buy the merchandise peddled by the politicians. This in itself should set off a warning light for leaders who think that their attacks on the media will always serve them well. That theory doesn’t hold water—both because the use of the social networks to lambaste the traditional media is losing its potency, and because even those on the right are starting to disbelieve the narrative.

What is more, some of the criticism of the slanted media does not come from the two countries’ leaders but from journalists and media outlets that consider it part of their role and mission to engage in a continuing duel with their rivals and competitors. This produced the interesting situation in which card-carrying members of the media establishment attack “the media” for its bias. We may assume that these attacks have played a part in the decline in the right’s trust in the media. The fact that the decline has halted, may indicate that the public—certainly on the center and left, but also on the right—understands that media personalities too, instead of engaging in investigative reporting and making genuine contribution to the public discourse, prefer "parasitic" journalism that consists exclusively of criticism of other actors on the media stage. They too display the symptoms of the agent-principal problem. 

The bottom line is that the restoration of trust in the media is rooted in the fact that they are doing their job better; or because the attacks by the Prime Minister and others in his circle have lost their sting, and the public now understands that they serve the attackers more than the citizenry at large; or because there has been an awakening to the inherent slant of the social media and the fact that they, more than the establishment media, are the main purveyors of fake news; or because of a backlash by large sectors of the public against the attacks on the media as an institution: whatever the case, the media have been thrown a life-preserver. Now, despite all the problems of staying above water, they must take advantage of the opportunity and rebrand themselves as an arena for serious investigative reporting rather than disinformation, and embody the principles of diversity and transparency and defend democracy and public morality.