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Have we got to our perfect rock bottom?

In 2023, 12 journalists were arrested or faced dubious charges in America for essentially doing their job: Asking questions and holding those in power to account.

Or, as one of my journalistic heroes, Bob Woodward [who, with Carl Bernstein, broke the Watergate scandal in the 1960s] so beautifully put it: “To get people to give information … that is vital to understanding so people can really see what is going on.”

The numbers were reported in Stephanie Sugars’ article, “Members of the press charged with committing ‘acts of journalism’ in 2023”, and hosted on the US Press Freedom Tracker, a website dedicated to documenting press freedom incidents in the United States.

Sugars’ assessment was that “the criminalisation of routine journalism this year shows authorities either do not understand news-gathering practices or, more alarmingly, do and use prosecutions as a cudgel to chill future reporting.”

Unsettling either way.

But that’s America, right? I couldn’t find any evidence that journalists in New Zealand are locked up for persistently asking hard questions.

But what is the precursor to a society in which prosecuting journalists is no longer an anomaly but increasingly common?

Because if it’s a nose-dive in the public’s trust in news, then Aotearoa is well on its way.

The Auckland University of Technology [AUT] research centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy published its fifth annual Trust in News in Aotearoa New Zealand report this week.

It shows just a third of New Zealanders now say they trust the news.

That’s a whopping 20 per cent down from the first report in 2020, when general trust in the news was comparatively heady at 53 per cent.

The report’s authors said while there was “no single reason to explain the decline”, causes for distrusting the news include political bias [typically pro-left rather than pro-right], lack of balance and “sensationalism and clickbait, opinion masquerading as news, and capture by corporate and commercial interests”.

Even those surveyed who said they still trusted news believed that “news itself needed to be fact-checked now”.

“The news to these respondents was no longer trustworthy by default,” the report said.

With plummeting trust, job cuts and closures in the industry, and, as RNZ’s podcast The Detail put it, “a Deputy Prime Minister who’s virtually declared war on journalists”, it’s not hard to think journalism in Aotearoa is reaching what musician Pink would call a “perfect rock bottom.”

And when it comes to rebuilding trust, there’s good news and bad news.

First, the bad news. The Reuters Institute in Oxford, England, found this is a complex problem with no easy answers and certainly no one-size-fits-all solution.

There is little public consensus around what a trustworthy model would look like, with many people Reuters spoke to “holding ambivalent, even seemingly contradictory attitudes”.

The good news? Well, Reuters found slightly higher support for news that focuses more on regular, everyday folk rather than powerful people and that news organisations that make an effort to be more transparent – such as communicating the ethical standards they follow and separating facts from opinion – are likely to increase public trust.

And that’s not just my opinion.

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