How we lost trust in newspapers

Last September, the results of a survey on public trust made grim reading for the newspapers, particularly the tabloids. The excellent tabloidwatch website reported on what it had found:

YouGov asked 1,854 adults ‘how much do you trust the following to tell the truth?’ with a number of different professions listed – politicians, doctors, journalists, police and others. Compared to results from 2003, trust in the media has declined significantly across the board.

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Journalists on ‘upmarket’ newspapers
Total trust: 41% (65% in 2003)
Total not much/no trust: 51%

Journalists on ‘mid-market’ newspapers (Mail, Express)
Total trust: 21% (36% in 2003)
Total not much/no trust: 71%

Journalists on ‘red-top tabloid’ newspapers
Total trust: 10% (14% in 2003)
Total not much/no trust: 83%

Of the 25 professions listed, the mid-market newspapers came 15th and the red-top tabloids 25th. Last. Behind estate agents. The results aren’t a one-off. An Ofcom survey in May 2010 showed newspapers were the least trusted source for news. The Committee for Standards in Public Life’s 2008 Report showed TV news journalists – trusted by 46% of people – far ahead of broadsheet (36%) and tabloid (10%) journalists.

How has this happened? Well, to state the obvious, it happened because tabloids cannot be trusted, in their news and in their sports coverage. And the “upmarket” papers have shown a worrying trend of resorting to gossip and speculation too. Let’s take the Mirror as an example.

The paper was originally a very genteel and uncontroversial affair, like any newspaper. Some of the early football headlines give an idea of the different times that existed. In 1904, when the paper cost half a penny – the Mirror tells us that Manchester City had 13 players in their Cup Final squad. A player called Livingstone, a Scottish “laddie”, had a touch of influenza, or “some such trouble”. The City half-back Ashworth was suffering from rheumatism.

Under the headline MANCHESTER WIN ‘T’ COOP, City won the cup for the first time, and Bolton took their defeat “very quietly”.

Several of their footsore supporters were not in such an equable frame of mind. There were several very spirited battles of words on the grassy slopes just after the match. The Manchester men were known to “crow” over their victory, though no punches were thrown. The players were overwhelmed with anxiety to play their very best. The lightning-like movement by which Meredith got round Struthers was what caused the pen and ink critics of the game to boggle.

Some snippets from 1923 show similar reporting – and a record crowd assembled at City’s “palatial” new ground to witness them defeat Sheffield United 2-1, due to a strong showing after the “breather”. The paper also contained an advert for Craven “A” cigarettes, made specially to prevent sore throats. It was all so straight-forward and civilised. The headlines stated the facts – who won, how, who excelled, who didn’t. The worst criticism a City player got was that he was “downright bad”.

By the 1930s, more opinions appeared in reports, though often with an apology suffixed if they felt they had gone too far. By the late 1930s it transformed itself from a gently declining, respectable, conservative, middle-class newspaper into a sensationalist left-wing paper for the working class that soon proved a runaway business success. As the decades passed, the paper still wrote with much more innocence than today, but the style of the paper became more tabloid-like. Bigger headlines, less text, even some opinion pieces. The innocence was slowly disappearing.

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Since the 1960s, the story of the Mirror has been one of decline. By the mid-1970s, the Sun had overtaken the Mirror in circulation, and in 1984 the Mirror was sold to Robert Maxwell. After Maxwell’s death in 1991, a period of cost-cutting and production changes ensued. Nowadays, tabloid ratings are earned by sensationalising everything, and grabbing the attention of the reader. The Mirror even tried to get rid of the red logo for a short while, using a black one instead, to try and get away from that sort of reporting but the red logo was soon back. They are a red top, pure and simple.

As mentioned, the decline went hand in hand with another trend that affected papers across the board – cutbacks. Long before the credit crunch came along, all newspapers had to start cutting costs. No more regional correspondents and offices across the country, papers have had to get the news sent to them, cut down on staff, and use news wires and, by “utilising” other stories. The days of a journalist going out to get the news is becoming less and less, as often they never leave the office. And thus we see how journalists are increasingly using Wikipedia, Facebook status updates, Twitter feeds and the like to research articles.
Take David Anderson, a journalist writing for the Mirror, who repeated a claim deriving from vandalism on Wikipedia’s entry for Cypriot football team AC Omonia, which asserted that their fans were called “The Zany Ones” and liked to wear hats made from discarded shoes. The claim was part of Anderson’s match preview ahead of AC Omonia’s game with Manchester City, which appeared in the web and print versions of the Mirror, with the nickname also quoted in subsequent editions on 19 September 2008. The embarrassing episode was featured in Private Eye.


And if you don’t have news, then the only option is to spice things up and twist people’s words. Take Gareth Barry’s quote:

“The way we’ve played this season, there’s no reason why we can’t get enough points from the last eight games to be there or thereabouts (4th place). Anything after that, I’ll deal with at the end of the season. It’s not the be-all and end-all playing in the Champions League, but it helps in a World Cup year playing at the top level.”

This is the headline The Mirror went with.

‘Barry fuels summer signature scramble with top-four blast’

They then went on to insist Gareth is so “desperate” for Champions League football he’ll quit Villa to get it if need be.

And that story shows us another modern phenomena – the misleading headline. It’s hard to trust a paper that can’t tell the truth even in its header to a story.

Headlines are not covered by the same laws as the article itself – and everyone remembers the headline. Because of the limited number of characters available, there is a relaxing of the law that allows editors (or sub editors) a somewhat free licence to bend the facts. Or ignore them altogether, usually. The Press Complaints Commission ruled therefore that headlines are classed as opinion and therefore do not have to be (strictly) accurate. Go figure.

Of course, in recent times these headlines have often been much more colourful affairs.

WAN CHEWS SICK TOFFEES, KEE-GONE, DROP DEAD GEORGIOS, CITY MAKE EMILE OF IT, WEAH IN THE MONEY, GOAT-CHA AT LONG LAST, FROM RUSSIA WITH GLOVE.

And the headline is the key – research has shown that many if not most people will not read to the end of even a medium–length article. What they see in the headline and opening paragraph is what will stick in their mind.

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Increasingly with newspapers, revenue is sought from online content. The Daily Mail has bought a base in LA specifically to publish Heat-style celebrity tittle-tattle on its web site. And there’s no better way for a sports journalist to gain hits on his paper’s site than to come out with some inane drivel that garners a furious response from a set of fans. When I wrote a blog on Soccer Saturday, it was misinterpreted by some as me saying it was rubbish (I wasn’t saying that – I said it should be, as most of the panel have a mental age and level of analysis equal to that of a small child – but somehow it works). Either way, that blog got double the hits of the previous blog, which was better in my opinion. It wasn’t my intention to get hits, but I am sure many journalists write with this in mind.

But the easiest way to generate news is to generate your own story by making stuff up. Like making up a story linking Manchester City to a world-class player, then lead the following day with his rebuttal.

Like what The Sun did:
Manchester City have categorically played down suggestions that they are mounting a £100million bid for Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi. Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim, who was believed to be a board member at Eastlands, stated “Messi is a player that makes me love Argentina again.” leading many to believe City were preparing a big-money raid on Camp Nou for Josep Guardiola’s prized asset. However, City have stated Al-Fahim holds no position at City and that the story linking Messi, who has rebuffed talk he wants to leave Barca, with the club are untrue. “Following an article in The Sun newspaper which claimed that Manchester City are preparing a £100m bid for Lionel Messi, the Club would like to make the following information clear,” read a statement on the club’s official website. “The story is untrue and this fact has been accepted by the newspaper in question. General comments about Lionel Messi, made by Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim, who holds no position at the club, were mistakenly linked to Manchester City. The article was printed in error and an apology to His Highness Sheikh Mansour, Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim and a correction in Saturday’s edition of the newspaper will follow.”*

*In a tiny font, on page 32

As you have just seen, what these modern journalism practices seems to have led to more than anything is apologies. Lots of apologies.

Take a small period of the past few years at The Mirror. They had to apologise to Manchester City for claiming Micah Richards had handed in a transfer request. To Nicklas Bendtner for misquoting him. And to the regiment they accused of torture in 2004. To Bryan Ferry, accused of singing the praises of Nazis. To Kate Middleton after she complained of harassment. And to Prince William too. To Josh Hartnett, paying him substantial libel damages. To Andrei Shevchenko And Roman Abramovich. And his ex-wife. To David Gest. To…..

In the last year, the Daily Star has had to apologise for the following inaccurate stories:

Claiming that a bus driver refused entry to a passenger for wearing an England football shirt, claiming that Heather Mills paid her nanny £6.20 an hour – rather than £25,000 per annum, misleading readers into thinking that Rochdale Council was installing Muslim-only toilets at a shopping centre, suggesting a plane exploded on hitting an ash cloud during the recent airspace closures by using an image reconstruction from 1982, putting words into Cheryl Cole’s mouth that she did not use and reporting Katie Price was pregnant when she was not.

The editors of tabloid papers care only about circulation figures. If a million readers buy their product every day but are known not to trust what they read, they won’t care. As a nation we lap up gossip, scandal and controversy, and so we get what we deserve. The news cannot be trusted because it is shaped by agendas. Individual papers have their own political affiliations, and so will report accordingly, with bias. The Sun seemingly despise Fabio Capello and have run a year-long hatchet job on him. The Daily Star seemingly have an obsession with Jordan, so will try and link her to anything. I once asked a spate of football journalists if they could write impartially considering they themselves must surely have club allegiances – only one journalist admitted allegiances could affect what they write – I find it hard to accept it doesn’t affect more.  The paranoia of us fans doesn’t help either – well all think a certain paper (or two) has in it in for our particular club, we all react angrily at any perceived criticism of our team – but if papers want trust from their readers, then perhaps it would help in future to write the truth, without bias, without agendas, without prejudice, without aiming to mislead. Yeah, right.

 


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