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Media Mis/Trust and Other Paradoxes

Although the results of recent surveys in Central and Eastern Europe seem hard to piece together, they are telltales of the regional mood. by Peter Gross 23 September 2017

One of the bountiful paradoxes of Central and Eastern Europe recently became apparent with the release of the Digital News Report 2017 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

 

Incongruous Realities

 

Among Central and Eastern Europeans, the Poles have the most overall trust in their news media (53 percent), and even more so in their favorite outlets (60 percent). That places Poland in fourth place in the lineup – after Finland, Brazil, and Portugal – among the 36 countries covered in the report. Croats, Czechs, Hungarians, and Romanians are not as trusting of their news media and place in the lower half of those surveyed, with the Slovaks even lower at third from the bottom.

 

The incongruous realities regarding the six Central and Eastern European countries in the report emerge when levels of trust are juxtaposed against perceptions of who influences the media and to what degree. It could be argued that the relatively modest levels of trust should in fact be more depressed given the overwhelming awareness by media consumers regarding the heavy political and business leverage on news reporting. As the author of the Poland chapter, Grzegorz Piechota, told me, 80 percent of Poles consider the media not to be free from political and government interest “most of the time,” and 70 percent think so about business and commercial influences.

 

Data on Romanians and Hungarians underline the self-contradictory nature of opinions about the media and the forces that affect it. Only a quarter of Romanians believe politics and business do not influence how news and information is reported, yet 39 percent trust media overall and 46 percent the outlets they access. Thirty-one percent of Hungarians trust the media in general and more than half (54 percent) the news sellers of their choice, this despite that the overwhelming majority (around 88 or 89 percent) who see politics and business influencing their media. The Croats have similar levels both of trust in the media and recognition of its susceptibility to influence, whereas the Slovaks (21 percent) are far more distrustful of the media.

 

Political and business influences are “further stimulated and exploited by quickly growing ‘alternative’ media outlets,” writes Vaclav Stetka addressing the Czech situation. It’s a region-wide trend. With American, Italian, and Spanish online media on the apex of the Reuters Institute’s political polarization scale, Poland ranks fourth, Romania fifth, Croatia sixth, and Hungary eighth. The irony is that internet penetration is lowest in Poland (68 percent) and Romania (56 percent), countries where digital media is highly polarized and aggregate trust in news sources is the highest in the region. Internet penetration in the other four countries in the region is comparatively high, ranging from 74 percent in Croatia up to 88 percent in the Czech Republic.

 

Low Trust – Not Just the Fault of the News Media

 

The Eastern Europeans’ generally low trust in their media is justified. As unholy myrmidons of the political and business establishments, even governments, the professionalism of their news purveyors faces even greater challenges than that of their Western counterparts.

 

Political polarization, for example, is present both in Western and Eastern Europe. Still, polarization in the east furnishes additional meaning to the comprehensive distrust in the media, stewing in distinctive historical and cultural contexts. Consequently, a fragmented media reflecting the “struggles between parties, factions and interest groups … can give the feeling of greater freedom,” but also a consistent sensation of bias with a resulting greater degree of mistrust, I was told by Mihai Coman, dean of the School of Journalism and Information Sciences at the University of Bucharest.

 

Additionally, this polarization provides a credible explanation for the relatively augmented confidence people have in the specific outlets with which they have an affinity of biases, tempering the skepticism they may exercise vis-a-vis the media in general. “People may trust media outlets of their choice, but not media in general, and particularly not outlets that represent views so different from theirs,” concludes Peter Bajomi-Lazar, head of the Institute of Social Sciences and associate professor in the department of social communication and media at the Budapest Business School.

 

But there may be additional related causes for the lack of trust in the media, which we should pay close attention to.

 

There is a correlation between belief in democracy and confidence in its institutions, and vice-versa. Central and Eastern Europe is confronted with less than majority support for democracy, and moreover, according to the Pew Research Center, there are low levels of social trust in the region, affecting faith in others, including those who lead institutions and do the bulk of their work, and in those influencing them. The European Social Survey is quite right when it concludes “individuals with the greatest trust in their fellow citizens also tend to have the highest levels of confidence in public institutions.”

 

Last but not least, we might expect Eastern Europeans to prove the general proposition that trust in societal institutions is high where real or perceived corruption and crime is low. Citizens of the six countries discussed here appear to stand this notion on its head. Surveys by Transparency International, the OSCE, and other organizations consistently find high levels of corruption in these countries, yet local perceptions rank them in the upper one-third of least corrupt countries among the 176 that are part of the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2016. Despite this, these are the countries whose citizens have low trust in their media institutions.

 

Thus, paradoxes continue to define Eastern Europe, which may be a good thing if we take Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr’s words for granted: “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”

 

 

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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