A question of trust (part two)
I’m sorry to have missed the launch of Adrian Monck’s book last week as it fell right on deadline. But I gather there were lively exchanges, as you’d expect for a work with such a controversial title as Can You Trust The Media?
Andrew Gilligan didn’t seem convinced by his assertion that the waning trust may not be quite such a crisis after all. But I’m on Monck’s side on this one.
When I began lecturing in the mid nineties I mischievously collected samples of some of the dodgiest newspaper practices. For example, all first editions the day after a serial killer was jailed, and pinned them up alongside each other to show headlines such as “Ten more victims”; “He killed dozens more say police”; “The Search begins for 100s more”.
Same story, different take. But how could this happen, I'd ask? Was it the reporting or the source? In this case it was a moment of madness that was a five-minute post-trial press conference, with the official response: "Well, there are ten people unaccounted for that we know about. It's not inconceivable that there are many we don't know about. How many would that be? Think of a number. It's pure speculation at this stage."
Headline writers, take your pick.
They joined a growing collection as I began to enthusiastically archive pages that were a. pulled after the first edition; b. only ever went abroad before being pulped; c. never actually made it into print; d. got a senior exec or two sacked.
The reaction? A good laugh. Interesting points made but a light touch to break up the heavy stuff. Did it deter them from reading - or writing for - newspapers? Don’t be daft. And did they matter a jot when I brought them out after a dinner party? Not a bit.
Why? There was no real trust there in the first place, merely an acceptance that we can generally read between the lines when we need to and our natural scepticism will spare us from being conned.
Since then, our attitudes to media consumption have changed. We know what to accept, what to dismiss and what to use merely as a point of reference.
I'm talking generally here. And I’m not talking major exclusives.
But look at it this way: a commuter on the 6.32 from Waterloo who picks up a discarded red top will no more believe Elvis is living on the moon than that the small ad on page 52 can make him attractive to women. But neither will destroy his confidence in the media or singles nights.
The importance of the message depends on the level of trust he places in the messenger. TV awards aside, strong images and reporters in flak jackets will generally get a good response, first person headlines about soap stars in the Sunday tabs will not.
A local paper will be trusted by and large (and that’s the point) because the issues it deals with matter to its readers and, given that many of their stories will be exclusive in the purest sense, there are fewer points of reference to test their scepticism.
Even if the Weekly Bugle says Fred Toadstool is 52 when you know for a fact he's 56, you’ll accept the mistake at face value because the paper’s perceived raison d’etre (planning applications, real people’s weddings, death notices) is to inform, not to grab attention at any cost.
A national paper will invariably be merely one of many reference points for a reader following a story on many platforms; the bigger the story, the greater the outlets. Angles will vary and some facts will differ but, in the main, the key ones won't.
It's a game of averages. What really matters is that a paper has to be seen to get it right most of the time but be trying to get it right all the time.
Levels of trust will vary according to experience. Readers like victims of crime, are a product of their experiences.