Why people don’t trust the media

We should not allow ourselves to get sidetracked by the well-oiled partisan propaganda which will start to dictate the media agenda and make us lose sight of what the Konrad Mizzi/Keith Schembri issue is really all about.

Spotlight traced the story of how paedophilia within the Catholic Church was blown wide open by The Boston Herald – the pressures on the journalists to “kill” the story from the powers that be in the staunchly Catholic town were tremendous.
Spotlight traced the story of how paedophilia within the Catholic Church was blown wide open by The Boston Herald – the pressures on the journalists to “kill” the story from the powers that be in the staunchly Catholic town were tremendous.

In the midst of all the swirling accusations and allegations of corruption over Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri’s dubious companies in Panama, we read that a 2015 survey carried out by the Eurobarometer has concluded that only 32% of Maltese trust the written press, 38% trust radio and 47% trust television. In contrast, 51% trust the government, which sharply counters the trends across Europe where the average percentage of those who trust their government is 27%.

In a way, I can understand this cynicism in a country where there are media houses owned by the respective political parties. But while I think they have contributed heavily to increase the perpetual polarization, at least these entities have their bias displayed out in the open. It is when privately-owned media outlets are viewed with downright suspicion because of who there might be behind-the-scenes, pulling strings and influencing public opinion that you realize that the concept of a free press has taken a beating over the years.

Like many other aspects of our life which we erroneously believe are unique, undue pressure on the press and media manipulation are not “only in Malta” problems.

Two recent films took a cold, harsh look at how difficult it is to work in the independent press. Spotlight traced the story of how paedophilia within the Catholic Church was blown wide open by The Boston Herald – the pressures on the journalists to “kill” the story from the powers that be in the staunchly Catholic town were tremendous. Then there was Truth, which tells the story of the infamous case involving respected anchorman Dan Rather and Mary Mapes, producer of the primetime news programme 60 Minutes.

Prior to the US 2004 presidential election, they ran a story which questioned the military service of President George W. Bush, then seeking re-election. Basing their story on documents provided by a source, it was alleged that he had failed to meet even minimal training and performance requirements and was given preferential treatment because of his father’s connections.

Is it any wonder that the average person who is not particularly interested in politics finds the overwhelming deluge too much to handle and just gives up?

When doubts were raised about the authenticity of the documents, Mapes’s liberal politics were called into question and she was grilled about her bias against the Republican President. The film implied that news executives were pressured to revoke the story by corporate owner Viacom, which “had business reasons to maintain friendly relations with the Bush administration.” Both Mapes and Rather eventually lost their jobs because of the story.

For many people, the print and broadcast media always seem to have a hidden agenda in terms of which story they run, the slant of that story, who they choose to interview and why. Sometimes the skepticism is more than justified. Let’s face it: the curious timing in the publication of certain stories, which photographs are used to illustrate a story, whether an interviewer does a “fluff” type of interview, or whether he/she asks hardball questions, and the two weights and two measures of extensive scrutiny on one administration while a subsequent one is given an easy ride… these things can and do happen all the time.

It is a minefield for those who work in the field which daily challenges their true integrity as journalists. When it comes to the reporting of news events especially (as opposed to opinion columns like this one, which are an entirely different breed of journalism) each journalist, each editor, ideally should go into a story and focus only on the hard facts, while shedding as much as possible the inherent bias which is in all of us. Which of course, is easier said than done. There are so many pitfalls and so many ways in which news can be manipulated should someone choose to do so, that it is quite easy to see why there is this mistrust on the part of the general public who rely on the media to obtain their information.

At every turn there are also the gatekeepers (editors, heads of news, etc.) who choose which story to run with, keeping it in a prominent position on the front page and in current events programmes, and which stories should be buried, never to surface again. At times, this is a result of a natural death because interest has flagged and there is no more new information, but at other times, depending on the media platform in question, the story would have been conveniently “killed”.

We live in an age where our attention span is becoming shorter and shorter, where we want our news quick and snappy, in convenient sound bites and when many don’t bother to read past a headline and just want to know the gist of what is happening because they cannot be bothered to delve deeper.

At the most, people will read only what fits into their preconceived notions so that their core beliefs are not disturbed in any way, and they find comfort in that.

So, is it any wonder that faced by all these undercurrents, the average person who is not particularly interested in politics finds the overwhelming deluge of different information coming from various sources too much to handle and just gives up? Not many are going to bother to read absolutely everything in order to get a full, clear picture, and coupled with their already existing mistrust of the media for the above mentioned reasons, they end up being wary and not believing any news source at all.

At the most, they will read only what fits into their preconceived notions so that their core beliefs are not disturbed in any way, and they find comfort in that. Unfortunately, those in politics are well aware of this and use it to their advantage. Spin doctors know that one way to get through a damaging story is to sit tight and just hold on, because people eventually will lose interest and move on to something else.

It is within this context that the crucial role of the free press, the Fourth Estate, as a watchdog on those in government and those who aspire to be in government, has to be viewed. And it is even more important within the context of yesterday’s almost election type atmosphere, during which both political media machines began to rally their troops, calling them to their trenches.

It is for this reason that we should not allow ourselves to get sidetracked by the well-oiled partisan propaganda which will start to dictate the media agenda and make us lose sight of what the Konrad Mizzi/Keith Schembri issue is really all about.

More in Blogs