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Say it ain’t so! Politician reports faltering trust in the media

Posted on April 25, 2024 by Ryan Dahlman

In his most recent newsletter, Martin Shields, MP for southern Alberta’s Bow River riding, delivered a blunt assessment of the deteriorating quality of life in Canada. One attention-grabbing headline in his update stuck out like a sore thumb: Trust in Media Hits a New Low. The statement isn’t really a surprise; but it is a reminder of the sheer volume of junk we have to sort through in an effort to discern fact from fiction in the modern world.

These days, anyone with a YouTube account, a webcam, and a head full of ideas can pose as a social or political commentator. Some succeed and do it well. Others are pure parody. Any individual with celebrity, notoriety or status can generate views and then propagate whatever mixture of sense and nonsense they choose to. Add to that the ‘legitimate’ news organizations with studios and offices that can’t seem to get out of their own way in terms of political or social agendas, and suddenly there you have it: a witch’s brew of mistrust.

Shields revealed a recent StatsCan report showing that only 13 per cent of English speaking Canadians have a high trust in the media. “Yes, you read that right–13 per cent,” he said. “Given Bills C-11 and C-18 directly affected the Canadian media landscape, as well as the CBC receiving over $1.3 billion in tax dollars every year, it was quite shocking to see this latest StatsCan report. There are a number of reasons why this may be the case. Could it be the perceived bias because of government funding?”

He called it “quite shocking,” but it’s not shocking at all. Distrust and mistrust are just part and parcel of what the information age has become. There’s a difference between the two: mistrust is skepticism, and distrust borders on flat-out disbelief. And there’s plenty of both to go around in this screen-gazing environment, oversaturated by info-wars.

What would the results be if people were asked to rate their trust in politicians? Or in the medical experts, the justice system, or in educators? There’s a solid argument to be made that across the board, trust is at an all-time low. One has to wonder if it has something to do with being bombarded by conflicting information sources that clutter up our minds.

There are a few obvious culprits that have thrown a monkey wrench into our public discourse, making it utterly disjointed and divisive. COVID-19 sparked volatile debates, and YouTube, social media and mainstream news became the public square upon which hostilities erupted. The global pandemic went viral in more than one way; it triggered a social epidemic of blaming, shaming, and finger-pointing. Media platforms accommodated and promoted the war of words and ideas. Churches, school boards, parents associations, and laypeople picked a bandwagon and jumped on board.

Singling out the media as fallible isn’t unjust. In some cases it gets the criticism it deserves, but some anti-establishment movements are all-too-willing to denounce well-informed reports and insights from mainstream media. Rebels can declare the death of expertise, because after all, anyone with a high-speed internet connection can be an expert, right? No, not really.

It’s always harder to find facts than it is to find opinions and interpretations. It’s an investigative process, and it’s much easier to deal with oversimplifications. The pandemic caused such chaos and confusion that suddenly every message became suspect and laced with a conspiracy or hidden agenda. Unfortunately, it was often just humans being humans; leaders, experts and regular folks bumbling and stumbling our way through it. A vocal minority was attributing hidden agendas to everything, rather than accepting that the basic human defects of inexperience, ineffectiveness, and ineptitude were making fools of us all. No one was sufficiently prepared, and all hell broke loose on every level. It was a molotov cocktail of mixed messages and it still persists four years later.

Maybe the system has failed – politics, media, healthcare, education, justice, science, religion – you name it. Of course that would be catastrophic, but we’re not there yet, because it’s not all failing in unison. It’s not disintegrating simultaneously. Every institution has its good and bad actors. Some of them are piecing the puzzle together while others are either blindly or intentionally fragmenting it.

As for the media, it’s not about wearing an agenda like a badge of honour, unless the agenda is unbiased fact-finding. News media has the distinct advantage of accessing society’s movers and shakers, but if it isn’t representing a story fairly, the public will feel misled. So, back to the 13 per cent who have ‘high trust’ in the media. It’s a shamefully low vote of confidence, and should serve to remind us that trust is hard-earned and easily broken.

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