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Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell
Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell

MediaMay 3, 2024

Why I told a cop about my lasagne and what it’s got to do with the media

Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell
Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell

People trust other people more than institutions. So how can the media gain that trust through journalists without losing what’s important about the institution? Anna Rawhiti-Connell reflects on two years of curating the news for The Bulletin.

Amonth ago, armed cops descended on my neighbourhood as calls to “lock your doors” echoed down the streets. Two days later, I opened my door to a strange man.

I was in my dressing gown. My irritation must have been immediately visible because the first thing the stranger said was, “I am not trying to sell you anything.” The second thing he did was flash his police badge. He’d come seeking information about the incident that had prompted the heavy police presence. 

He’d been preceded the morning before by a journalist knocking on our door, also enquiring about what had happened. They also had a badge of sorts. I was again in my dressing gown, declined to be on camera but talked to them anyway.

Both door knockers belong to collectives that have achieved enough scale and power to be described as “institutions”. I maintain a level of scepticism about all institutions, including the police, politicians, business, the medical profession, the judiciary and the media. You might describe this as lacking a bit of trust in them. 

Five seconds after that cop flashed the emblem of the institution he belongs to, I gave him my phone number, my name and my date of birth. I told him what I had heard that night and, inexplicably, that I’d been cooking lasagne for dinner and had returned to my pan of mince after hearing a gunshot. I clutched my dressing gown closed because I wasn’t wearing anything underneath. I sincerely hope I did not tell him that. It’s also entirely possible that I did.

Do I wholeheartedly trust the police as an institution? No. In that moment of seeking both the extrinsic utility and intrinsic comfort his presence served, did I trust that policeman? Yes. 

Over the last couple of months, the decline in trust in media has been well-documented, so let me turn the heat down on my professed scepticism before it’s speciously attributed and read as a betrayal of my brethren. What I’m offering here is the suggestion that it is an uncontroversial and quite normal point of view. Trust, as it is measured in an institutional sense, bumps up against the very human instinct to trust people above all else, and in 2024, that measurement is being taken amid entrenched behavioural change that supercharges the ability to lean into those instincts. 

In case you don’t care, avoid the news, or are what we call in the biz “a regular person”, trust in institutions, including the media, is measured via a range of surveys and research projects. It’s useful, insightful and interesting stuff, but reports, surveys and statistics are also a proven way of generating media coverage. 

“Media”, as it’s used in headlines about declining trust and in the media’s coverage of the media, largely describes institutional or mainstream news and journalism. It’s also the word we use to describe all manner of things we read, watch and listen to. Porn is media, and I feel safe in assuming that’s not what’s being referred to in the aforementioned headlines. 

Global PR consultants Edelman produces the Edelman Trust Barometer, which is frequently cited as a go-to for institutional trust. The Reuters Institute at Oxford University has been running a global trust in news project since 2020. In New Zealand, AUT has run a similar project using similar questions. They are all reputable organisations staffed by many experts.

If you participate in the New Zealand Trust in News survey you’d be asked about your interest in news. In this year’s survey, 94% of New Zealanders said they are interested in the news to some extent. “To some extent” falls within a range that I, an occasionally “regular person”, consider to be quite good. Survey participants are also asked to rate various news brands for trustworthiness on a scale of zero to ten. The recent concern has arisen due to an overall decline in trust in news and falling trust scores for news brands.

As all reputable surveys do, the AUT survey acknowledges things that are useful, insightful and interesting when discussing broad concepts like trust, institutions, perception, brands and behaviour. “In general, surveys reflect people’s perceptions because they capture people’s self-reported behaviour,” the AUT report reads. “They don’t necessarily reflect how the people actually behave due to biases and imperfect recall.”

A recent report from the Reuters Institute notes, surveys “are useful for capturing people’s opinions, but these are subjective and aggregates reflect public opinion rather than objective reality”. 

Edelman Trust Barometer, 2024

We are at least two decades, if not more, into the documented decline in trust in all institutions, according to the many studies and surveys that have sprung up to measure it. The new position paper on media in New Zealand by Koi Tū dates it to 1965, based on the work of Robert Putnam. More recently, in 2017, Edelman announced that trust was in crisis. Edelman also dates the shift in trust from institutions to peers to 2007. I am not a global PR consultant, but I’d stake my life on dating that idea to more ancient times.

While the perception of media and mastheads can be regularly measured, questioned and framed as an issue of trust, trust is an amorphous and complicated idea. Institutions are also something of an amorphous blob conveniently described using shorthand that is meant to stand for all they are while failing to capture all that they do. 

Many institutions continue to function with trust metrics that are pretty low. We should be concerned about how little trust people have in politicians, and yet they do seem to box on being powerful and in charge. I worked in marketing for 10 years and sat through many market research sessions. There are plenty of examples where brand trust and expressed on-the-spot preference have little bearing on market share, customer growth and decline or revenue. You can hype your lofty brand purpose and spend millions telling people about it, only to have most customers say they just like the person they spoke to on the phone or miss the person who used to help them at a branch. 

The media could and does hype its lofty purpose, but in stark contrast to the brands I’ve worked with, is also quite generous in the airtime it has given to its own failings, as illustrated by the avalanche of headlines the trust in news survey generated. 

It is difficult to imagine a beloved airline investing in buying the equivalent amount of media space to nakedly shout about its failure. Clever brands, those truly unencumbered by noble purpose or blessed with a purely utilitarian purpose, often prefer to show and not tell. It’s far easier for brands to spin nice yarns because sometimes their purpose is to make money by flying people to nice places. Many successful brands are not burdened with fulfilling a democratic purpose, and their core job is not to repeatedly tell people all the ways in which they are being misled. When your purpose is to fly people to nice places, it is preferable that you not be shot as the messenger.  

I am convinced that the media is as crucial as it says it is, but I am yet to be convinced that repeatedly telling people that is the best way to prove it. 

Right now, people trusting other people over institutions as a source of information, misinformation, entertainment and opinion is happening at an unprecedented scale, facilitated in large part by social media. In coverage of the decline in trust in media here, social media has been acknowledged but ever so slightly waved away. 

Wearing the other hat I have, as head of audience for The Spinoff, I think this is both the correct approach and an underestimation. It is correct not to lay cause at the feet of something most of your audience uses because that shifts blame in a way that’s unproductive. 

The ability for everyone to functionally act as “media” within the attention economy is one of the biggest shifts we will likely see in our lifetimes. Dismissing social media doesn’t erase the commercial, societal and political impact it’s had on an industry that has had a monopoly on attracting eyeballs and revenue at scale for decades. 

I want to be clear in saying that I am not denying that the measured decline in trust across institutions is real. Nor am I saying that there isn’t a reckoning required for media, underscored by the most recent findings of AUT’s Trust in News survey. I don’t think many journalists, as individuals, would shy away from that. Perhaps more people would like to see that acknowledged — more swords fallen on and more mea culpas issued. The reality of doing that authentically while necessarily existing behind mastheads and news brands is difficult. Unpick the institution while holding it up and together at the same time.

As editor of The Bulletin, the job I step down from today, interrogating where I place my trust and not wholeheartedly giving it over to the “institution” I am part of has been a critical aspect of the job. 

In acting as a news curator, my eye isn’t trained towards mastheads or institutions, it’s trained towards bylines. I have developed an ability to recognise journalists by their headlines. I don’t seek out coverage via section or homepage but usually by knowing who covers what beat and searching. Huge understatement here, but I recognise that my media consumption over the last two years has been atypical. However, it’s in bylines and people I trust, and I don’t think that puts me outside the norm as far as some of what the media is grappling with around trust in 2024.  

It’s easy to suggest giving the personal brand prescience over the institutional as a potential solution, and there are plenty of examples of that happening already. Sometimes I think that’s what people mean when they demand innovation from the media. Not a day passes when I don’t think maybe the future really is TikTokers reading the news to their followers or that 16 Substackers in a trenchcoat will constitute a masthead. There are also plenty of reasons to suggest that’s a risky approach. The institutional media may look slow at times, but some of that lumber comes from the codes and ethical standards that bind it. Henry Cooke offers some ideas that I think bridge a bit of distance between leaning into developing a stronger sense of personal trust between journalists and audiences while upholding what’s important about the institution. 

Unfortunately, at this point, too many words deep, I can only offer the unsatisfactory conclusion that I don’t know what the whole of the solution looks like for the myriad challenges facing both media and audiences alike. Plenty of people have suggestions about what could be done and should be given time and clear air, in good faith, to discuss them. 

In signing off, I can say that I guess what I’ve been trying to do several times a week for two years is be that “policeman at the door” for Bulletin subscribers, and in the process of doing that, I’ve learned a lot about trust and the media. 

I will happily maintain my inherent scepticism about institutions and think it’s critical to the work I will continue to do at The Spinoff as head of audience and a senior writer. I will continue to trust the people I’ve gotten to know personally and those I’ve only ever known as tiny headshots and bylines, just as I trusted that cop at my door. I recognise that the job has been a genuinely privileged and unusual one in that respect. That’s not the experience of audiences, another broad and amorphous term used to describe the people we need to productively engage more than we currently do in our conversations about media and trust.  My experience, atypical as it has been, has given me useful insight and a lot to feel optimistic about. That’s about all I hoped for in taking the job on, and all I will sign off with.

Keep going!