Journalism, Opinion

Have journalists misread a moody public? A Faithful & Factful perspective on the question of trust.

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“Factfulness is … recognizing when a category is being used in an explanation, and remembering that categories can be misleading. We can’t stop generalization and we shouldn’t even try. What we should try to do is to avoid generalizing incorrectly.” – Hans Rosling (2018), Factfulness, London: Sceptre, pg 165.

One of the most enduring memories I have of starting to study theology as a mature student was how quickly I had to come to terms with my own breathtaking levels of wilful ignorance. My entire Christian journey as an adult has been characterised by a series of successive and gradual realisations that my worldview is fundamentally flawed and incomplete. Just like yours, and more or less everyone else’s. Relax, we’re in good company.

Reading Christian Scripture usually impacts my sense of place, purpose, and calling in this world in relation to God and humanity. Having recently finished Hans Rosling’s masterfully written book called Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than you think, I am not ashamed to say that every chapter had a strikingly similar effect to my experience of digesting biblical literature. They both breathe fresh life into my curious mind, albeit in different ways.

Although I didn’t read Factfulness in the bathtub, I had plenty of eureka moments as I plunged more deeply into a Factful way of thinking. Little lightbulbs kept popping into my head as I began to ponder the enormous potential of Rosling’s fact-based conceptual framework; this is especially the case when I consider how useful it is with respect to the process of forming and shaping my nascent data journalism skills. As Hans puts it:

“The world cannot be understood without numbers. But the world cannot be understood with numbers alone.” – Rosling (2018), Factfulness, 192.

As I wrote in my previous post, the Devil in the Data, rooting out vital public interest stories hidden in the numbers, whilst avoiding an overly dehumanising approach to statistic-led journalism, is precisely what I hope to learn how to do in my PGCert in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University. Time will tell if the pandemic will have tapered off enough by September 2020 for me to commence my studies in person.

Facing an uncertain future in the time of Corona has not dampened my newfound desire to pursue journalism as a vocation, although it has chastened it. To survive this pandemic and progress into a new career in investigative data journalism, I will have to attempt to remain steadfast and patient. Such is the order of the day for so many of us across the globe during lockdown.

Thankfully, alongside Factfulness as a preliminary guide to getting to grips with data, as a Christian I need not rely upon the numbers alone. Nor do I have to feel unduly pressured to make perfect sense of them. This is in no small part because I frequently read and believe the multiple reassurances in the scriptures about divine faithfulness, which remains my immovable anchor amidst all the storms life tends to hurl at us; including Coronavirus.

As mysterious and overly simplistic as it may sound, believing in the God revealed in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whose essence and character are variously described as love, light, truth, and goodness combined with absolute trustworthiness, gives me a great sense of comfort and peace. This is especially important and helpful during a time such as this ongoing pandemic, replete as it is with so much sadness, suffering, anxiety, and uncertainty. Powerless though I am to change the course of history, I do my imperfect best to cling to the kernel of beautifully naive, childlike faith which I have been granted to trust that if my vocation in this brief life is to pursue data journalism, I can rely on divine faithfulness to enable me to succeed. Even in the time of Corona.

A Moody Public?

Yet on the subject of trust, according to some vocal critics of my desired profession, it appears that substantial numbers of people across the UK do not see journalism through the same rose-tinted spectacles I have found myself donning over the past twelve months. A recent, already infamous poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of Sky News, claimed that trust in newspaper and TV journalists has plummeted over the past month, despite a similar poll in March showing that some forms of journalism (i.e. The BBC and broadsheet publications) were enjoying an uptick in public trust since the 2019 General Election. Within barely a month, the national mood appears to have changed dramatically. So much so, that one tweet captured the alleged zeitgeist as follows:

For clarity, according to the Sky News YouGov poll, trust in journalists has fallen into “net minus” figures: Approximately 72% of respondents expressed some form of distrust of newspaper journalists, versus 17% who expressed varying levels of trust. Whereas 64% of respondents expressed some form of distrust of TV journalists versus 24% who expressed trust. Or, put another way:

Source: YouGov

In either case: the final methodology given in the Sky News article was to subtract the distrust from the trust, which was then described as a “net minus” score. E.g. 17-71 = -56 (in the original article it was -55) and 24-64 = -40. Despite my paucity of knowledge or experience with respect to how statistics are typically expressed, I did feel puzzled by this way of putting it. Nevertheless, hold onto those two minus figures. They’ll be important shortly…

Rapid Rebuttals

Since the original Sky News article, accompanied by a seemingly synchronistic flurry of self-appointed social media spokespeople who were suddenly keen to speak on behalf and express the “mood” of an entire nation, more than a few journalists found storms brewing in their teacups instead of the usual Yorkshire nectar. [1] Masterful responses to both unofficial spokespeople and Sky News were forthcoming from a range of commentators. Data journalism guru Paul Bradshaw pointed out the obvious for anyone who has become acquainted with Factfulness:

“News — aside from the odd human interest story or “and finally” piece — has never been the place to go for hope, optimism, faith, or positivity.

News is also an industry that focuses on facts. And most of the facts right now are not very nice facts.” – Paul Bradshaw (2020), Is the press missing the mood of the country over coronavirus?, Birmingham, UK: Medium.

Data-driven journalism underpinned by Factfulness is not designed to be akin to entertainment. Au contraire, it finds its raison d’etre in confronting and provoking those who might otherwise ignore, suppress, or simply be oblivious to the facts of any given matter. The kind of journalism I hope to learn to do is, at its idealistic best, compelled by an unflinching resolve to seek, find, verify, and tell (or often expose) the truth even if it is uncomfortable or inconvenient for the national mood. Holding governments and businesses to account is an extraordinarily important contribution to any nation’s efforts to survive a crisis like Coronavirus. Democracy crumbles when the 4th estate is reduced to a PR exercise to tow the party line.

Playing with Numbers

Other writers weighed in quickly with various nuanced critiques of the Sky News poll. Charlie Beckett, writing for the London School of Economics, pointed out various issues with the vague nature of how the YouGov pollsters surveyed the nebulous notion of “trust”, and cautioned against missing the broader context of what he otherwise described as a “perfectly reputable” poll. Richard Fletcher, writing for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford university, offered a superbly intricate study into the mix of the wider debate around public trust in journalists and news media.

However the most scathing rebuttal of those clamouring to suggest that trust in the press has plummeted dramatically over the past 30 days was summed up by Will Jennings’ response on yougov.co.uk. Analysing trends in the data around this very question of trust in the media more closely over the past few months, he simply expressed the truth of the matter like so:

“There simply has been no collapse in public trust in news media during the coronavirus outbreak.” – Will Jennings (2020), No, trust in the media has not collapsed because of Coronavirus, yougov.co.uk.

This brings us back to those “net minus” figures from the original Sky News article. Whilst they were actually only presented, quite rightly, as part of a bigger and much more complex statistical picture, even I wondered what was going on in the polling numbers. So out of morbid curiousity, I had a quick glance through the wider dataset and compared some of the other data which sprang out at me with the original “trust” data in the same poll. To my amazement, here’s what I found when I mapped the numbers which sought to gauge the public “mood” with respect to respondents’ perceived levels of increased sadness and anxiety, over their “trust” in newspaper and TV journalists:

Source: YouGov

Did trust in news media figures plummet in tandem with increased public sadness and anxiety brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown? Common sense might dictate that this is eminently plausible. Perhaps journalists really are “missing the mood” of the nation because people are more depressed and anxious than usual during lockdown. If journalists are frequently the bearers of more bad news as the Coronavirus death toll soars, this is surely understandable. The comparison can appear even more fascinating when combined with previous YouGov polls on the question of trust. For example:

Source: YouGov

As others have already explained far more artfully and accurately than I can at present, the broader trend of public trust in different forms of journalism is actually far more nuanced and stable than some self-appointed spokespeople appear to believe. Especially when you compare levels of trust in a variety of newspapers (broadsheets / mid-market / tabloids) over the past 6-7 months. For example (again numbers = % of respondents who expressed some level of trust):

Notice the relative stability of public trust levels throughout October to March. Also the similar ratio of trust between the vaguer categories of “newspapers” and “TV” journalism. Does this point to the seductively obvious picture of a spike in sadness and anxiety during the Coronavirus lockdown being a causative factor in the alleged drop in the public’s trust in news media? What if you plunge further down this rabbit hole and work with another metric, like averages?

For instance, by adding increased levels of anxiety and sadness together and finding the average you would get a figure of (45+49) / 2 = 47. Let’s call this arbitrary figure “negative lockdown mood” or NLM. How does NLM compare to an average of the “net minus” figures we mentioned earlier? (See above) According the Sky News YouGov poll, public trust ended up at -55 (trust in newspapers) & -40 (trust in TV journalists). Add those figures together and find the average and you get (-55+ (-40)) / 2 = –47.5. Notice the potential implications? Eureka! The Sky News Poll shows us that there is a direct correlation between increased levels of public sadness and anxiety and decreased levels of trust in news media, which explains everything, right?

In a word: No. At best, I have stumbled across an interesting pattern in the Sky News data, and manipulated the figures to support an assertion, which is almost certainly of no statistical significance whatsoever (of course, if it is, you read it here first). Hans Rosling would likely be horrified at my presentation of the above data if I was trying to use it in a serious fashion to sway public opinion, or inform any kind of government policymaker. Correlation ≠ causation and confirmation bias frequently runs rampant through the human mind in our search for meaning. Randomness is real, and poll data are very often clumsy numbers to work with. Especially when pollsters conflate diverse categories like broadsheets / tabloids / TV journalism / the BBC etc (or when friends on social media fall into a straw man fallacy by castigating impossibly broad categories like “the media / press”: Who exactly? Which ones?!).

If you felt a hint of persuasion in my argument above, consider that experience carefully before you feel tempted to jump on the next bandwagon careening its way through your social media feed. So much for journalists misreading the public mood. It turns out that a decline in public mood may (or may not) have influenced their level of trust in the media. Yet if you believe that and/or the spokespeople asserting the latter, it might be worth pausing to reconsider whether you (or they) are actually in full possession of the facts.

A faithfully Factful approach can work wonders here. As can a dose of humility in admitting that claiming to speak on behalf of > 60000000 people, or casting judgment on all forms of journalism by denigrating hopelessly imprecise categories like “the press/media”, is a foolish (and potentially dangerous) business. Remember the opening quote in this article by Hans Rosling: Categories can be misleading. If in doubt, better to keep quiet. As one writer in the Hebrew Bible puts it:

“Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.” ‬‬

Proverbs‬ ‭17:28‬ ‭NRSV

End Notes

Miguel Roca

1. For the uninitiated, I am of course referring to the legendary British brew known as Yorkshire Tea. Peerless amongst black tea brands in the UK.