A declining trust in the Czech mass media: As told by the journalists

by Kaitlynn LeBeau

Before 10 Kent State students and two professors arrived to Prague, a small *sample of people in the United States were polled about their trust in the media. Approximately 92 percent of the people who said they do not have a great deal of trust in the mass media to report fully, accurately and fairly, said that they still tune in anyway. Approximately 30 percent said this is because they trust the media enough, while approximately 63 percent said they only tune in because they want to be informed.

Those polled also appear to agree with the journalists, with approximately 66 percent saying they do not believe someone can still be an informed citizen if they do not pay attention to the mass media.

As for the Czech Republic, according to an article from the Prague Monitor, the most recent poll by the CVVM (translated to Public Opinion Research Center) shows that radio ties with the military for earning the most public trust of selected institutions. Television comes in 4th with trust from more than 50 percent of those polled, and the Internet at 50 percent. However, CVVM polls also show these numbers have considerably declined. Over the past four years, trust in television has declined by 17 percent and confidence in the press has dropped by 15 percent in the past five years.

Despite some differences between the American and Czech mass media, the journalists interviewed about this topic have strongly agreed on one thing – the answer to this question:

“Can someone still be an informed citizen in a democratic society without paying attention to the mass media or the press?”

The answer consistently is no.

“Journalism is a very vital part of democracy,” Radio Free Europe News Editor Bruce Jacobs said. “A well-informed public is essential to a strong democracy.”

Jacobs works at Radio Free Europe and previously spent eight years at CNN. He said that when journalism is not performing as well as it should be, it influences democracy and undermines people’s feelings that they know what’s going on with their government.

So what exactly determines if the mass media is contributing to a healthy democracy? Jacobs said people do not trust their understanding of what’s going on in their government or society if they feel journalists are not reporting accurately. He said this can occur when people find the media reporting sensationalized news.

Brian Whitmore, Europe Editor at Radio Free Europe, previously at the Boston Globe, said there is pressure to “dumb down” and report sensationally. However, he said there are ways around sensational news, “It is possible to tell important stories in an interesting way.” He puts that responsibility on the editors to make sure important stories that may be boring are still told, but in a smart way.

One of the difficulties journalists face is keeping touch with their responsibility to act as the Fourth Estate. Keeping the public informed is one of those responsibilities.

A democracy calls for citizens to make informed decisions in the voting polls. This isn’t always the case, but by journalists educating the public on what’s happening, citizens can operate responsibly under a government that provides so many freedoms.

Media in the United States has decades more experience than the Czech Republic in acting as the fourth branch of a democratic government.

The former media in the Czech Republic promoted government approved propaganda. Michal Musil, the newsroom editor of the Czech national newspaper IDNES, says that because journalism was directly linked to the government, people associate their negative feelings towards the media with their negative feelings towards politics.

“People are really unhappy about politics in this country,” Musil said. “Media are one of the victims of the discontent.”

He said that although people are not happy with the current democracy, more of these feelings are tied to the former communist regime. Musil is optimistic that the declining trust in the media is only temporary – that this is natural for people experiencing a new democracy and advancing technology all at the same time.

Evolving technology brings up a point that Jacobs made about citizen journalism. People are not just getting information from the press anymore. With social media on the rise, communicating and releasing information to anywhere around the world is easier than ever. News can be spread from a smartphone instantly.

“If it [journalism] doesn’t fulfill that function, something else is going to step in and do that function,” Whitmore said.

With the ability to find information elsewhere, another responsibility of the fourth estate is what keeps journalism alive. In a relatively new democracy, the Czech media has to adapt to challenging and questioning the government.

The journalists who question the decisions and actions of the government are members of the checks and balances system. What journalists choose to investigate and run on the news can incite change and call for reform.

The resignation of Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas was the country’s biggest anti-corruption crackdown in 20 years, according to a Radio Free Europe article. The scandal allegedly involved corruption, spying and an extramarital affair. As an even bigger consequence, under Czech law, the entire government must step down as well.

The bottom line is: whether the majority trusts them or not, the public relies on journalists. The journalists are fair parents – keeping the citizens informed while also challenging the government.

Hear from an American journalist on the declining trust in the United States media.

*The media trust poll included a question from the 2012 Gallup poll: In general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media — such as newspapers, TV and radio — when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly? The choices were – a great deal, a fair amount, not very much or not at all. This was an online survey, shared on social networks, which limited possible respondents to people with Internet access. A little more than 50 people completed the survey, a majority between the ages of 18 and 29. This was a small sample size that would be more accurate with a wider demographic.

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