We have witnessed a curious anomaly over the last few years in the Edelman Trust Barometer. Trust in media in some countries where the government either owned or controlled that media (UAE, Singapore and China for example) was often higher than countries where media was traditionally thought of as “free” like Australia, UK and the U.S. (where famously it is constitutionally “free”). So when Reporters Without Borders (RWB) recently published their global map of press freedom (which scores countries on press freedom using criteria like pluralism; media independence; environment and self-censorship; legislative framework; transparency and infrastructure) we decided to cross-reference this with our findings.
What this shows is that there is very little correlation between “freedom of the press,” at least as defined by the RWB methodology, and “trust in the media” as reported by the sample group of “informed publics” in our Trust Barometer. In fact, China, the only country in the RWB category of “very serious situation” that we also study scores highest for trust in our survey. This may of course be a one-off anomaly but looking at bigger samples there remain some puzzling variances.
The countries in the “good” category that score highest for press freedom (including Canada, Sweden, Germany and Ireland) had an aggregate score of 47 percent in answer to the question “do you trust media to do what is right” in our study. This was a lower than countries categorized as having “noticeable problems” (including Brazil, Argentina and South Korea) who scored an average of 54 percent as well as lower than countries categorized as having a “difficult situation” (including Russia, India, Mexico, and Turkey) at 58 percent in the Trust Barometer.
So while there is not an inverse correlation, it is certainly very far away from the intuitive conclusion that the more the media is “free,” the more it will be trusted.
In Singapore and China where we have debated this point in the past, we have been given two explanations for this. The first was the observation that media in countries like the U.S., UK and Australia may have squandered their trust score through increased politicization, sensationalism and the lack of resources for in-depth investigation or even in some cases, consistently accurate and quality journalism. This is difficult to dispute.
The other point made was that in some countries, media has never been provided with a first amendment style protection or a role that includes holding government accountable. This might be explained by the fact that some of these countries are not democracies (China and UAE do not pretend to be of course) and even some that have other democratic institutions have openly put national unity and economic development ahead of the pursuit of individual happiness or liberty.
Journalists from Singapore’s Straits Times are pretty bought into the idea that the newspaper has a nation building agenda and that at times this will trump what they have dubbed as “Western news values.” The idea that there are universal news values is itself a massive area of debate and to be fair, the RWB criteria does not look at news values, but rather the framework and environment within which journalists and media operate.
We look forward to comments and thoughts on this observation.