A recent international report on digital media and news consumption has shown a surprising increase in public trust in local Turkish media over the past year, despite the government’s growing control over this sector.
However, some analysts warn that these findings should be taken with a grain of salt and that more research should be conducted before making final conclusions.
According to the report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and University of Oxford, the overall level of Turkish citizens’ trust in the news they get from the mainstream and online media has increased by eight per cent compared to last year. In 2018, only 38 per cent of respondents said they trusted the media in their country.
The most trusted media outlets in Turkey in 2019 were TV stations Fox, CNN Turk, and NTV, as well as opposition newspapers Cumhuriyet and Sözcü. Of these five outlets, only two – NTV and CNN Turk – are owned by business groups with close ties to the government.
The report’s authors found this increased trust of the Turkish people in the local media puzzling, noting that “there doesn’t seem to be any obvious explanation for such a dramatic change”.
About 90 per cent of mainstream outlets in Turkey are under government control, due to the acquisition by a pro-government conglomerate of the country’s biggest media group. As a result it is almost impossible to get any objective, non-partisan news from those sources.
Bilge Narin from the Faculty of Communication at the Ankara Haci Bayram Veli University believes that the findings of the Reuters Institute/University of Oxford report are somewhat deceiving and do not reflect the reality.
“The methodology used in this report is quite problematic because the authors used only a limited number of people in their research and focused mainly on urban areas. More research should be conducted before making final conclusions on public trust in the media”, Narin said.
Even the report’s authors admit certain shortcomings of their findings.
“Data are from urban Turkey, rather than a fully nationally representative sample. This will tend to represent richer and more connected users”, the report reads.
The Reuters Institute/University of Oxford report, as well as one published in May by the Turkish research agency Konda, revealed another important trend: people, especially those aged 15-29, use digital and social media as their main source of news.
The Reuters Institute/University of Oxford report found that 72 per cent of Turkish citizens used their smartphones to access news, while two-thirds of people living in cities relied on social media for news content.
Konda compared data from a decade ago with the findings from 2018 and concluded that, while television continued to be an important source of news for most Turks, the number of those reading newspapers had plummeted since 2008. Thus, 72 per cent of young people under 30 read newspapers in 2008, but a decade later only 22 per cent do so.
Government supporters watch TV, while the opposition opts for online?
Commenting on the apparent increase of public trust in Turkish media, Suleyman Irvan, head of the communication, new media and journalism department at the Istanbul’s Uskudar University, said it was probably caused by the fact that consumers can now access many different news sources on the internet rather than relying on the mainstream media.
“Government supporters will continue to watch television to stay informed, but those who are critical of the government prefer to get their news from the internet because they don’t trust the mainstream media,” he said.
For a long time Güzide Kara, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mother from Istanbul, used to read Cumhuriyet, one of the oldest newspapers in Turkey popular among secular Turks. She said she stopped buying it when the editorial policy became more nationalist, due to the changes in the paper’s steering board.
These days, Kara uses Twitter and other social media as her main source of information on domestic and international affairs, although she knows they are not always reliable.
“I’m well aware that social media is a fertile ground for fake news and misinformation,” she said. “However, I want to stay informed because I don’t want to feel disconnected from the world around me.”
Atilla Topal, a 55-year-old engineer, used to be an active supporter of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and closely followed its political activities for many years. He used to read a conservative daily newspaper Yeni Şafak, known for its hardline support of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but he eventually grew tired of an editorial policy which he said “lacks fresh ideas and repeats same things over and over again”.
“These days, I prefer to get news from the radio during my ride from home to work, and I also stay informed through social media,” Topal said.
He added that he gave up watching television news a year ago.
“I am tired of watching the same people making the same comments every night. I would like to see some new faces and hear some fresh ideas, but that is lacking at the moment,” he said.
Government manipulation has backfired
Media experts emphasise that the government’s excessive influence on the mainstream media has backfired.
“People are as interested in the news now as they were before the advent of the online and social media,” said Fatih Polat, chief editor of the leftist and working class-oriented Evrensel newspaper.
“However, because the government’s manipulation with the mainstream media is so prevalent and so obvious, even their supporters start losing trust in the pro-government media and the information they provide. This excessive manipulation has seriously affected the relationship between the news providers and the audience.”
Suncem Koçer, an associate professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, warned against making generalisations.
“It is obvious that online and social media report news that cannot be found in the mainstream broadcast and print media,” she said. “Therefore, it seems logical that the opposition and those who support them would seek the content they are interested in online because the internet is still largely free from the government’s control.”
However, Koçer pointed out that her own research showed that, despite its shortcomings, “television remains the most trusted source of news in Turkey, regardless of one’s political and ideological preferences. People still see television as a trustworthy institution, so more research in this field would be necessary before making final conclusions”.