Over recent weeks, debates about how reporters should cover the pandemic have intensified, after a YouGov poll on April 24 showed nearly two-thirds of people did not trust television journalists. Many politicians and commentators were quick to seize on the survey, blaming aggressive journalistic questioning at the government’s daily press conferences. More generally, it has been claimed the public want health information not adversarial journalism at a time of national crisis.
But our new in-depth study with almost 200 participants during the pandemic showed news journalists are trusted – particularly those working for broadcasters. Moreover, we found they wanted more – not less – critical coverage of the government’s response to the pandemic.
As part of an ongoing diary study of news audiences between April 16 and 29, we questioned people in detail about the level of trust they have in journalists and how the government’s handling of the coronavirus should be reported.
We recruited a representative mix of the population – in terms of age, gender, class, education and political preferences – not to measure public opinion, but to explore people’s opinions and knowledge. Our aim was to not only ask people what they think about journalists and news reporting of the pandemic, but to understand why they think that way.
Is television news trusted?
Since representative polls have consistently showed public trust in television news is high, a possible explanation for YouGov’s alarming survey was the wording of the question, which asked people if they trust journalists rather than specific broadcasters or news organisations.
To explore how the public perceive different types of journalism, we first asked if they trusted journalists on the coronavirus, and then more specifically asked if they trusted journalists working in TV news, radio news, newspapers, online news or social media.
Whereas 49% people trust journalists either a great deal or a fair amount, we found 72% did when they worked in television news. Levels of trust were greater for journalists working on radio than journalists generally, but not for those working for newspapers or online media.
When respondents provided a judgement, the BBC achieved a trust rating of 85%, ITV and Channel 4 73%, Sky News 69%, and Channel 5 54%. Overall, more people trusted the TV news bulletins than did not.
We also asked why people trusted some journalists over others. Overall, television news was viewed as being more authoritative than other platforms, with more accurate than speculative reporting. This was well summed up by one respondent:
I trust journalists on TV news the most because they seem to sound quite factual whereas journalists in online news don’t usually seem to come from credible sources. Newspapers are very hit and miss, depending on newspaper they will try and sell you different story or change the original in a way that suits them the most
More or less criticism of government?
In order to explore people’s opinions about the reporting of the pandemic, we wanted to go beyond just examining what they generally thought about how well journalists had performed.
After showing respondents the headlines of the BBC’s and ITV’s late evening TV bulletins on the day that the UK recorded its highest number of deaths so far in the pandemic – April 8 – we asked them to assess the way in which broadcasters had reported the government’s handling of the pandemic. Broadly speaking, people characterised the BBC as having a factual and neutral approach, whereas ITV’s reporting was often seen as being more dramatic which – for some – conveyed the severity of the UK’s death rate. Clearly, not all respondents agreed on how broadcasters should – or should not – cover the pandemic.
Some participants, for example, echoed those politicians asking for a “rally-round-the-flag” approach to reporting, saying that it’s not appropriate to criticise the government at a time of national crisis. But most people called for more – not less – scrutiny of political decision making. While the BBC and ITV were singled out for not being critical enough, many respondents wanted both broadcasters to hold the government to account more robustly.
For instance, one respondent commented: “ITV didn’t actually mention the government’s handling of the pandemic. I think the BBC was – as always – neutral of the government’s handling, although it did mention it slightly more. I think ITV should have been more factually based in the headlines.”
Another focused more generally on coverage, saying that: “Updates on what the government are doing I believe are not critical enough, they are stating facts such as the government aims to test 100,000 people per day, however they have not criticised the government themselves.”
Other respondents were blunter: “I don’t believe either of the broadcasters, here, were critical of the government at all. I genuinely feel we cover up, hold back and don’t get all the truths.”
Far from the public losing faith in journalists or asking them to rally round the flag, our research shows most people trust broadcast media, but want more critical scrutiny of the government. This suggests broadcasters should not be cowed by politicians or commentators, but emboldened by the public who want them to challenge the government about how well they are handling the pandemic.