The Journalism, Media and Democracy research centre at AUT has just released its latest report on trust and the media. An offshoot of the university’s School of Communication Studies, JMAD is, understandably, disturbed to discover that New Zealanders’ trust in the news media has undergone a sharp decline. It must be upsetting to discover that, in spite of the best endeavours of their teachers, New Zealand’s journalism graduates are not inspiring the same levels of trust as their predecessors.

Among the plethora of data brought together by the report’s authors, Merja Myllylahti and Greg Treadwell, one finding in particular stands out. “In 2020, 62 percent of New Zealanders trusted the news they consumed. In 2022, the figure dropped markedly to 52 percent”. That’s a drop of just under 20 percent in the space of two years: a significant and worrying fall.

The question, of course, is: Why?

The authors of Trust in News in Aotearoa New Zealand 2022 do not offer an unequivocal answer. As respectable academics, they prefer to let the data speak for itself. Judging from the opinions they have opted to include in the body of the report, however, Myllylahti and Treadwell regard the journalistic profession as more sinned against than sinning. It is the consumers of news who are presented as having gone – or been led – astray. The strong implication being that the mainstream news media, with its legal and professional obligations to discover and present ‘the facts’, simply cannot compete against the instantaneity of social media content-providers unencumbered by such old-fashioned considerations.

Is this fair? Is it really no more than social media’s ability to get there firstest with the mostest that undermines the credibility of the mainstream journalist? Or, is there something else lurking in the mainstream media ‘product’ that both infuriates and alienates an increasing number of readers, listeners and viewers?

As someone unencumbered by the rules and regulations of academia, I would answer unequivocally, “Yes, there is.”

No matter how many facts are embedded in a news story, its impact almost always depends on how those facts are arranged and presented. More and more consumers of the contemporary mainstream news media are becoming less and less concerned with the facts contained in any given story than they are with the way so many journalists seem determined to instruct them on how to respond to those facts. People do not like to be told what to think – especially by journalists who show every sign of being motivated by causes about which their multiple audiences are profoundly unsympathetic.

At this point, it is necessary to acknowledge that journalists have always been guilty of ‘guiding’ their audiences to the ‘appropriate’ conclusion. The journalist’s finished product is not called a “story” for nothing. The trick, however, lies in preventing the reader/listener/viewer from ever noticing the path down which the creator of the story is leading them. They should emerge from the experience convinced that the facts have spoken for themselves. The notion that the journalists has spoken for the facts should never enter their heads.

Putting it another way, the mainstream news media needs to remain squarely in the mainstream. Its consumers should read, hear and see no more than what they expect to read, hear and see. They should feel they are being addressed by someone like themselves: someone who shares their values; someone who considers the same things to be important – and unimportant. So long as this is the case, even the introduction of new and potentially disturbing information will not undermine the trust and confidence of the audience. If the tone is right, just about any set of facts will be accepted. Get the tone wrong, however, and the audience’s willing suspension of suspicion will cease immediately, and the ‘spell’ (an Old English word referring to what, today, we would call ‘news’) will be broken.

Nowhere is this failure of tone more evident than in RNZ National. With a listenership dominated by educated middle-class New Zealanders over the age of 55 years and holding moderately liberal-left views, the public broadcaster nevertheless decided to skew its programming and presentation towards a younger demographic. Overnight the listeners found themselves being spoken to by people they neither liked nor trusted, and who made no attempt to hide their didactic purpose. Indeed, the overall impression conveyed by the broadcaster was that RNZ’s audience was wrong in just about all of its beliefs and in urgent need of re-education.

Myllylahti’s and Treadwell’s research has recorded not only a sharp drop in RNZ’s listenership (although it remains impressively high in spite of the defection of so many Baby Boomers) but also a much wider, but equally hostile, public reaction to the public funding made available to media outlets pledged to adopt the politically correct oeuvre of the New Zealand intelligentsia.

Providing the mainstream media applicants pledge to honour the political and cultural shibboleths surrounding te Tiriti o Waitangi, substantial chunks of public money are on offer. It is an extremely well-chosen filter. No one who challenges the notion of the treaty as a ‘partnership’ could possibly be relied upon to deliver ‘stories’ in any way compatible with the rest of the intelligentsia’s ‘progressive’ agenda. Almost certainly, they would reflect the values of the unrepentant majority of New Zealanders who refuse to acknowledge the full extent of their ‘white privilege’, or the tragically limiting impact of their ‘heteronormative’ expectations.

No matter how many facts are contained in this ‘public interest’ journalism, its effect outside the narrow band of New Zealanders who are best described as ‘woke’ will remain negligible. Inevitably, such ideologically driven ‘journalism’ only appeals to the already converted. To the rest of the population, the story is about the mainstream media being ‘bought’ by the government – a narrative that will only further undermine public trust and confidence in journalism and politics.

This is what Myllylahti and Treadwell, and the editors and journalists they quote, simply do not appear to understand. That the moment the audience spots the strings attached, their assumption will always be that they are looking at puppets. Far from being the content that clinches the argument, the facts will cease to matter. They will be dismissed as ‘fake news’.

The social media, whose influence the academics decry as almost entirely pernicious, rises above their criticism and condemnation for one very simple reason. It strikes the right tone. People respond to ‘citizen journalists’ who look and sound like themselves: people who share their values; people who consider the same things to be important – and unimportant.

People who know instinctively what the School of Communication would never dare pass on to their students: that one should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Known principally for his political commentaries in The Dominion Post, The ODT, The Press and the late, lamented Independent, and for "No Left Turn", his 2007 history of the Left/Right struggle in New...