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News coverage leaves public in the dark

29 Jun 2009

Journalists and the public have different ideas about what news is, according to a ground-breaking study by academics from the universities of Manchester and Leeds which raises concerns over the effectiveness of news reporting.

Journalists and the public have different ideas about news
Journalists and the public have different ideas about news

In one example, despite blanket coverage of US primary elections last year, none of the participants in a series of focus groups organised by the researchers knew that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were from the same political party.

The focus groups, held in March 2008 for a report on trust in the media, were also critical of other stories then in the news including the Princess Diana inquest, ‘binge drinking’ and the disappearance of Shannon Matthews.

The views of the public did not “dismay or surprise” journalists spoken to by the research team. The journalists were also more likely than the public to say that news stories were liable to be untrue.

“It’s clear from our report that national newspaper and broadcast journalists can be complacent: they feel that all they should be doing is to simply expose the public to a story and nothing more,” said Dr Scott Anthony from The University of Manchester and one of the researchers.

“Trust is about more than believing other people are telling the truth,” he said.

‘Public Trust in the News’ was published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

Study lead author Professor Stephen Coleman, Visiting Fellow at RISJ from The University of Leeds said: ‘The unifying fact in all this is what seems to be that distance between the viewers and readers, and the news providers.

“I think there are lessons to be learned by journalists: they should be less complacent about their understanding of their readership or their audience. The relationship is far more complicated than many journalists think.”

Dr Anthony, who is based at Manchester’s School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, added: “Many media organisations have responded to the 24/7 news environment by moving resources away from local news gathering to build an online presence.

“This growing physical gap has enabled public ideas, expectations and understandings of national life to drift away from those expressed by the media.

“Protecting the physical infrastructure of British journalism is every bit as important as protecting and developing essential resources such as local post offices.”

Another concern raised by the focus groups was that journalists determine rather than report the news. Examples they brought up were the conspiracy theories featured in newspapers on the circumstances of Princess Diana’s death at the time of the study.

Dr Anthony said: “This is all about the public being told stories that have not been not properly explained and that they would be able to find more reliable information elsewhere.

“Public trust collapses when journalists are perceived to be reporting on social groups, areas and practices that they do not understand.”

Notes for editors

Comments from focus groups are available.

‘Public Trust in the News’ is the fifth study to be published as part of a Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism series called ‘Challenges’, which present findings, analysis and recommendations on media issues. The full study Public trust in the news: a constructivist study of the social life of the news by Stephen Coleman, Scott Anthony and David. E. Morrison is at: http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/publications/risj.html

Dr Anthony is available for comment

For media enquiries contact:

Mike Addelman
Media Relations Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881 567
michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk