"Don't believe everything you read." That's the motto of many where the media is concerned. In which case, who can you trust? Last week I snuck into an informative debate on this vey subject, the second in a series curated by Fran Plowright and Free Word. Big questions were asked. What is "news"? Do we need to trust the news? And what are the consequences if we don't?
Among the small but vocal crowd were students under 16 from schools in Hackney and Manchester, together with practising journalists, seasoned pros, keen amateurs and enthusiasts. Before us was a panel of established members of the media industry including Piers Bradford (Commissioning Editor of BBC Radio 1), Angela Phillips (a journalist and reader at Goldsmiths, University of London) and Derren Lawford (Commissioning Editor of London Live, The Evening Standard's new TV channel dedicated to the capital and each of its boroughs).
In light of recent national scandals such as phone hacking and Savile, I didn't expect the public to look favourably upon "the press". Regardless of instances where the press has checked itself – the ITV Exposure investigation on Savile, for example – sometimes even within its own organisation. Nonetheless I was shocked by the depth of distrust felt towards the media. There's one statistic in particular that stuck in my mind, plucked from a survey conducted by Transparency International:
"69 per cent of the country think that
the media is corrupt."
All media. That's a broad brush. That figure is up 29 per cent since 2010. In fact, people think that the media industry is more corrupt than politics. Ouch.
The mechanics of trust in the context of the media industry's relationship with the state is a curious one. The positive influence of national prosperity balanced against the negative influence of corruption and impropriety. It's too big to go into here but consider that levels of trust in countries where government either owns or controls the media (UAE, Singapore and China, for example) is often higher than in countries where media is traditionally thought of as “free” (eg Australia and the UK) according to a research by global PR firm Edelman. Does this mean that people in some countries turn a blind eye if they feel upwardly mobile? Are these results nothing more than testament to the power of propaganda? Incidentally, the same firm revealed figures pointing to a rise in public trust of the media in the UK: up 21 per cent since the phone-hacking case and seven per cent since 2013.
But back to the lecture theatre, and another revelation. When the subject of young people was raised it became abundantly clear that the next generation feels demonised and wholly underrepresented in the media. A recent survey by Demos, "the country's leading cross-party think tank", revealed that a staggering 81 per cent of teenagers felt they were negatively represented in the media. "These negative stereotypes are having a detrimental impact on how they engage with the wider world and their employability," we're told.
A good example is this article in the Guardian, written by a young master's graduate who took exception to a student that rebuffed her offer of a job at the cafe she occasionally works at. What did he say? 'No thanks, I'm over-qualified." Cue a rant about "a certain type of student who looks down on such lower-skilled jobs." Her customer's comment seemed rather innocuous, and the writer's tone was largely cautionary, presenting graduates with the harsh reality of low-paid work in trades far away from their passion or vocation – just to make ends meet. But the article did also paint a picture of the young person as lazy, rude and deluded by a sense of entitlement. Predictably, it prompted a vehement response in the comments section. Here's a taste:
20 February 2014 5:03pm
"If minimum wage jobs – that not even a person who owns their house outright could live on – are "gold dust", then what is the point? Students now have to take on real-time debt to study … and then to land in Costa? They have a right to their expectations. The problem is this society first bleeds them then kills their expectations off.
20 February 2014 6:03pm
"It's time society stopped attacking; different sections of itself - we have big challenges in the years ahead. We should be working together to tackle them. Sweeping generalisations, stereotyping and one-sided arguments help no-one. I'd like to add I agree some young people are like that. The key word is some. The Commons voted the changes to Tuition Fees into law in 2010. You never see good hard-working [young] people represented in a newspaper. A few shots of them drunk or passed out is the perfect way to provoke an emotional response. Higher education is not a party. Anyone who thinks that is just wrong. Some do treat it as a massive party. But that's some. Why stereotype a whole section of society? Is this not a swinging media agenda? Just because the author was sneered at coffee shop doesn't warrant this piece. The Guardian should be asking why there aren't enough graduate jobs? Why is the labour market so broken? Why has society placed these burdens on their young?
21 February 2014 3:32pm
To those already working as baristas, barmaids and babysitters while studying this article is really patronising 'advice'. With fees increasing to 9k a year, hundreds chasing every internship and significant cuts in the arts there is probably about three disillusioned students left in England who believe they can walk into a job. One of them must have come into your cafe.
Some strong examples of questionable media conduct were discussed at the #OnTrust debate: the portrayal of Shereka Marsh as a Hackney gang girl first and a schoolgirl second; Mark Duggan's portrait, taken at his daughter's funeral but cropped to make him appear more menacing; how the bulk of the media allow a story and its headline to be dominated by negativity instead of spotlighting positive measures to help (eg self-harm and YouthNet's dedicated response).
So where do we go from here? Obviously a major restructuring and recalibration of the media industry is required, one where newspapers, magazines, radio stations and broadcasters are not only broadening the range of voices and opinions in their programming but also being fair and accurate in the stories they choose to share. In many people's eyes, the newspaper industry cannot be trusted to police itself, which is why the farce of the new Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has further agitated the public.
I do feel though that it's unfair to condemn an entire industry because of a handful of incidents. There are bad apples in every profession, in every city, and we should remember that it was the press that broke some of the biggest public interest stories of the past few years: Snowden/NSA (the Guardian), MPs' expenses (the Daily Telegraph) and phone hacking (the Guardian).
To those young people who feel voiceless and misrepresented, I offer one word of encouragement: technology. Mad Men's Don Draper blows his fair share of hot air but he was right when he said: "If you don't like what people are saying about you, then change the conversation." You have all the tools, the weapons, you need to make that change. From YouTube channels and internet radio stations to live streamed citizen journalism using your mobile phone, there's never been a better time to shift the balance of power and prove what's really newsworthy when it comes to the youth. I'm certainly fired up now and ready to press ahead with my journalism academy project. Eager to hear how the next generation would change the world. This country has bags of talent and we can't let the wicked acts of the few overshadow the promise of others.
I'll leave you with some key thoughts from the night:
"News is anything you hear that you didn't now before. News is something that is sensitive to both audience and platform." Angela Phillips
"Money is missing from the conversation. Excessively negative and exaggerated stories are often used as click bait. The press is motivated by money rather than what's newsworthy or responsible journalism." A girl in the audience.
"Verification is important. Professional journalists are taught to be skeptical. Bloggers often aren't. Everybody is trying to be the first, but you can be too fast. Good journalism takes time." Angela Phillips
It's hard to get our perspective out there. There needs to be a change in journalistic culture. And not just at a local community level, but also around the big international issues. There needs to be a youth voice in there." Fran, a member of the UK Youth Climate Coalition
"Celebrating youth is an absolutely fundamental part of our job at Radio 1." Piers Bradford
"The vast majority of young people are doing amazing things in this country. If the media is going to hold a mirror up to society, and not a cracked one, it needs to get its act together." Martyn Lewis, veteran TV journalist, news anchor and chairman of YouthNet
"We should be skeptical and question the news we read. But I've seen the great courage of and conviction that drives the work that many journalists do. So it's depressing to see the very low regard in which they are held. Don't necessarily trust but certainly value journalism." Jo Glanville, Director, English PEN
"We need to know what's being done in our name. And journalism does that in an organised way, on a daily basis. We need journalism that connects us, connects us to one another. If we don't then we can't be a democracy. Without the underpinning of information circulating around the world, we'd be all the poorer." Angela Phillips
+ one more thing
The BBC has a produced a very interesting TV debate show called Free Speech. The latest one addresses young people's distrust of another major institution – the police. The nation is still seething from the deaths of Jean Charles de Menezes and Mark Duggan; watch as young audience members protest about racial profiling and the abuse of stop and search powers in a country where black people are seven times as likely as white people to be approached by the police. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that figure is as high as 29 in some areas. Nonetheless 61 per cent of the viewers at home thought it was right for the police to judge us on the way we look. As with the media, conduct is the crucial factor.