You too might have come across them: people who think that the coronavirus pandemic is just a government plot and vaccines are just a way for pharmaceutical companies to swindle people out of their money. On social media they pride themselves on not having followed the mainstream media for years.
They may not be a large group, but they’re loud enough to sway the opinions of those many people who are uncertain about the situation and even influence the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Distrust has increased over the last two decades but compared to other nations, Finns’ trust in mainstream media remains high. In the United States, for example, the situation looks completely different,” says Mervi Pantti, a professor of media and communications at the University of Helsinki.
The professor states that the comparatively healthy situation in Finland is, however, not a reason to ignore this growing distrust.
Why, for instance, do some Finns think that the Finnish broadcasting network YLE provides fake news, when it is clearly a stable, publicly-funded institution?
Families no longer gather to watch the evening news
Mervi Pantti explains that the growing distrust is connected to the rise of populism, the segmentation of media audiences, and to the changing role of journalists. Arvi Lind was a highly popular news anchor, but families no longer gather to watch the evening news. The news sources used nowadays are found online within their own communication networks.
“Trust in media is heavily correlated with trust in general. When the trust in political parties and institutions deteriorates, so does the trust in mainstream media. In part, populism and social media can be seen as explanations for the growth of distrust,” Pantti notes.
The wild and unregulated internet offers something for everyone. At one end there is journalism that has gone through a strict process of quality control and at the other, there are tendentious claims masquerading as news.
From this offering, readers are free to select what interests them the most and best suits their view of society. The platform algorithms further reinforce polarization. With the help of these algorithms, social media provides more disinformation to those interested in reading fake news, while those following traditional journalism will encounter more quality reading.
Journalists express their opinions on social media, arousing suspicion
Pantti reckons that the personalised nature of journalism might be one explanation for why some people no longer trust conventional media. Journalists’ job description has changed. In the early days of the press, stories were published anonymously, or journalists used pen names. Today both the journalist’s name and face are on display.
“More and more journalists are stating their opinions and taking an active role in discussions on social media. This reinforces the notion that journalists are not objective or neutral but have political agency just like everyone else.”
On the other hand, being active on social media can also enhance trust in a journalist. It seems that social media is an excellent way to reveal the background to a story, how the interviewees were chosen, and how an idea is developed into a published story.
Researchers don’t have an ace up their sleeve to help the media win back the trust. It is about a broader societal shift. Can authorities be trusted? Do politicians tell the truth? Does the media have its own vested interests?
Pantti says that transparency is always the first solution brought up by studies: journalists should always be open about how their stories are put together.
However, transparency in the journalistic process doesn’t have a major impact on trust, according to the professor. Even so, you have to try. It goes without saying that doing the job well and according to the ethical principles of journalism works. Mistakes, clickbait titles, sensationalism and intentional jibes will evoke little trust.
“Quality journalism takes up time and resources. Yet, restructuring negotiations, staff reductions, and increased time pressure go on pushing journalists into a corner,” Pantti says.
Facts are facts, not opinions
Fact-checking is often cited as a means to defend quality journalism. The world’s biggest media companies have their own, well-resourced fact-checking departments.
In Finland, Faktabaari (’Fact bar’), an independent fact-checking service, has been investigating the accuracy of news and statements made by politicians since 2014.
Joonas Pörsti, a doctoral researcher and the editor-in-chief of Faktabaari, explains that “In these rather polarized times we are currently living in, fact-checking functions as an independent voice. Faktabaari is independent of media organizations. It scrutinizes politicians no matter what party they belong to.”
Fact-checking supports the idea that there are scientific facts and not just competing opinions.
How can people who shun mainstream media be reached?
It’s a good question: how the fact-checking or transparent description of the editorial process could reach those who distrust the quality media. Those who gather their information from fake news barely follow the mainstream media or their working processes.
Moreover, many sceptics lump the mainstream media and fact-checking together as one and the same.
One way to address the general public is, for instance, to invest in video clips and other readily accessible channels of communication.
Quality media could use more direct and customized ways to coax their audience back.
“Of course, many media corporations are already doing this. They use podcasts and personal branding of journalists,” says Pörsti.
Schoolchildren taught how to distinguish between lies and truth
The trust enjoyed by the quality media is largely determined by the public’s ability to select only that which is of value, separating the wheat from the chaff.
Both media and digital information literacy are already considered to be part of a civic skillset, as well as being mentioned in the curriculum for basic education. In other words, nowadays you get to learn at school how to spot false information on the internet.
Mervi Pantti offers a word of warning: “This is a never-ending task. Just as our media literacy improves, so too do the means to mislead us. The lie is just getting more difficult to detect. People of all ages should have the opportunity to hone their media literacy skills.”
“The public service broadcaster has an important role to play here, but what kind of resources will it have to do this work going forward?” asks the professor.
For the time being, the Nordic countries have no need to fear the kind of deep divides that exist in the United States, where each camp would have their own news channel.
The article was published in Yliopisto magazine 10/2021 in Finnish. It was translated by Sarah Edwards, Anni Helste, Ronja Lampinen, Sara Lehmusruusu, Emilia Lilja, Isabella Lu, Taika Marttinen, Mimmi Mommo, Panu Pesonen, Ella Pohjoismäki, Aapo Puhakka, Milla Puuronen, Elina Raasakka, Leevi Raussi, Katarina, Skogster, Saga Tuomi, Laura Turunen, and revised under the supervision of John Calton, lecturer in English.