Contemporary news media and fractured bonds of trust

At 18:30 EET on the 13th November 2014, Depo hosted a debate about public trust in the news, entitled Contemporary news media and fractured bonds of trust. This debate was in Turkish and took place in Depo’s premises at Koltukçular Çk No:12, Beyoğlu, Istanbul.

This debate focused on issues of trust and the dependability of the Turkish media, as well as on the role of news outlets in the propagation of a lack of trust within society, both on interpersonal and institutional levels. A detailed summary of this debate can be found here and you can access information about the speakers and a brief consolidation of their main arguments here. You can also see video highlights of this debate here.

In Depo’s last Crisis of trust debate, journalists and communications experts came together to discuss the state of trust in contemporary Turkish media.

Moderator Murat Çelikkan, director of the Truth, Justice and Memory Centre and an experienced journalist, asked Professor Sevda Alankuş to get the debate started and Alankuş spoke to the audience about the proliferation of media, the loss of trust and the current fragmentation of the public sphere. She diagnosed a society in which people are forming into ever smaller interest groups and steadily growing apart from each other, hindering the development of any comprehensive social memory. Alankuş emphasised how the proliferation of so many contradictory sources of information was overwhelming societies. She asked, for instance, how we would remember the “truth” about Berkin Elvan’s death (Berkin was a 15 year old, who was hit by a tear gas cannister during the Gezi protests and sadly succumbed to his injuries after a lengthy coma) in 20 years time? His story has been told from very different perspectives by wildly different media outlets, featuring in stories pushing both pro and anti Gezi agendas, and Alankuş says that his story is exemplary for showing how mutually contradictory media sources keep societies from being able to unite beneath any one banner and prevent the formation of any true consensus.

Factual reporting is only rarely achieved when starting out from such polarised positions and Alankuş spoke of how, in the Turkish media, simple facts are often twisted beyond recognition, as their presentation is informed by completely different viewpoints – often by parties who have no interest in hearing or understanding other opinions. And, yet, she fears, that, if Turkish society does not seek ways to better understand itself and to strive for knowledge, then it risks all to easily ending up becoming lost amongst the opposing streams of rhetoric.

Guests heard how two or three decades ago, the situation was quite different. Then, the Turkish population was simply not told what was happening and inconvenient occurrences were ignored or forced to be forgotten. Thus, Sevda told us, her generation only became aware of Turkish crimes against their Armenian population through ASALA, respectively, of the atrocities against the Kurds through the PKK. Nowadays, besides conventional media, there are also new media sources and it’s no longer possible to keep mass phenomena quiet. However, while most information is now readily available, Alankuş states that we find ourselves in a situation, in which everyone talks but no-one really listens, preferring to hear voices similar to their own, rather than anything new and potentially divergent. According to Alankuş, the reason for this is that society has become divided, not into alternative, but into parallel publics, which exist in isolation to one another.

Alankuş closed by saying how a new ethic of co-existence is urgently needed, if society is to once more be able to work together. For Alankuş, this ethic also needs to be reflected in the news media and journalism at large. In defining this ethic, she refers to Zygmunt Baumann’s expression “not with the other, but for the other”. Being for the other before determining upon a specific course of action, requires the establishment of an emotional commitment with the other, while at the same time being responsible for the faults of the other and showing a greater awareness of self – in a way it’s getting to know ourselves via the other, says Alankuş.

Umut Alphan, who has worked for several major news corporations, pointed out the key moments when the bonds of trust between the newspapers and their readerships were fractured. Alphan said that one of those changes could be seen in ownership trends. In Turkey, the newspapers used to be owned and managed by families, whose main field of expertise was journalism, yet nowadays many have been purchased by business people with major investments in other sectors, leading to significant changes in how media outlets are run. For Alphan, the readers have been the major losers in this change of direction, with their access to objective information about the world around them becoming seriously restricted.

Those attending the debate heard how journalists in Turkey used to rate highly in local trust indices, yet their standing has deteriorated rapidly in recent years. It was also argued that biased reporting of the Kurdish conflict is now a well established fact in the history of the Turkish press, leading people to draw conclusions as to the probable objectivity of the media in other fields. Additionally, Alphan mentioned how, although the Turkish population is growing, the total circulation of its print media has failed to rise above a figure of c.5 million – a figure which many assert is in itself an exaggeration.

Looking at further key changes in the Turkish people’s relationships with their media outlets, Alphan took us back to the 1980s, where several new promotional techniques started to emerge. One method which was adopted was giving “gifts” to readers in return for the collection of coupons or the participation in lotteries. Originally these gifts were fairly small scale, ranging from encyclopediae to kitchenware, but soon cars were being featured, and, as the situation got out of hand, coming to liken a complex form of bribery, the state decided to intervene. This wasn’t the end of the state’s involvement in the media and when Alphan turned his attention to the 1990s he spoke of the start of the AKP [Justice and Development Party] period in the history of the Turkish media. He told the audience how it soon became clear that the party was looking to modify the structure of both state and society and how they needed media support to ensure that they achieved this. A purchasing campaign thus saw the ownership of Turkish TV channels and newspapers gradually change hands, transferring to businessmen who supported the government and were often also involved in many state owned projects in sectors such as construction and energy. For Alphan, these are the factors, which led to the present state of distrust in the media: commercialisation and the change to financial foci and the increased political intervention, leaving few independent media with the desire and resources to be able to keep the population properly informed.

Associate Prof. Esra Arsan focused, meanwhile, on what it was that Turkish readers were actually looking for in their media sources and on the crisis of trust in the Turkish media after the Gezi uprising. Arsan started by defining what she sees as a general tendency within Turkish journalism, describing the Turkish journalistic tradition as one with a literary, an emotional basis – a journalism which does not necessarily base itself on facts and data. She also told listeners how, after the Turkish print media became privatised following the foundation of the Republic, it started to focus on specific columnists. Therefore, ultimately, when we speak of trust in Turkish journalism, what we’re actually talking about is trust in Turkish columnists. Readers trust and follow their favourite columnists in a relationship mirroring the bonds of trust seen within traditional family structures, with the newpapers themselves taking a subsidiary role in this relationship.

Arsan noted that majority of the Turkish population finds out about the news through TV programmes, with the percentage of the population, which reads newspapers standing at a mere 18%. Far more people spend their time watching soap operas and diverse competitions on TV. According to recent surveys, a significant section of the population, across all age groups, also states that it would tend to approve of bans on media content, where the material being broadcast is seen to infringe upon certain values – family, national etc.. Arsan argues that there is simply no demand for accurate information or objective reporting and, as today’s news media primarily consists of commercial enterprises, that this lack of demand has subsequently resulted in a change of focus towards other kinds of reporting. She says that, until recently, many people were also not fully aware of the disparities between media reporting and reality, but that this became increasingly apparent during the Gezi protests, as many individuals taking part in their first protests were confronted with the differences between their personal experiences and the news as it was reported. However, Arsan notes that, after a couple of months these same people gradually forgot their experiences and nonetheless returned to consuming the very media sources, of whose inaccuracies they were the living proof. Indeed, although the Gezi protests were a moment of awakening for many people, Arsan says that the approach of the Turkish mainstream media was no different to that which it had taken during numerous other important events, particularly those taking place in the Kurdish region.

Pınar Dağ, a data journalist with her own news website, closed the debate by talking about the importance of having ready access to reliable information and of the need to ensure the factual validity of the information handled by mainstream media outlets and professional journalists. She started off by asking, whether the Turkish population really wanted to establish a journalism based upon trust or whether they simply didn’t care enough? According to surveys, trust in Turkish media outlets is currently as low as 30% and many news centres have been cutting down on the resources they devote to investigative reporting, however, institutions do still exist, she reassured us, in which people care about maintaining factually accurate journalism.

How then should we go about restoring trust in the media? Are we as concerned about the readers as we are about the news centres? In social media many journalists try to obtain popularity by discussing topics in an amusing fashion, yet perhaps we as readers need to ensure that the media focuses on more stringent production values, as opposed to diverting resources to the promotion of amusing divergences. We the readers could also do worse than to show more interest in alternative news channels and sites specialising in checking the factual basis of the stories featured in existing media outlets. And, one critical point that we must keep in mind is that we have to defend the internet and the freedoms it presently allows, as it seems that it is still the best way of reaching and disseminating information, which is as free as is possible of commercial or political bias.

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The speakers and their main points:

Sevda Alankuş

Distrust of the media and a split in the public sphere

Sevda Alankuş looked at the proliferation of the Turkish media, contemplate the low levels of trust associated with said media and look at how they create a divided public sphere, often split between two simplified poles. This polarisation of the public sphere and its political consequences raises the question of ethics within journalism and leads Sevda to contemplate the search for a new journalism, a new ethics, a new public sphere and, subsequently, a new democracy.

About Sevda:

She completed her master’s and Ph.D degrees at Ankara University’s Faculty of Political Sciences. Whereafter she continued her academic research in England and Italy, studying abroad from 1988 through to 1990. She has worked at Ege University’s Faculty of Communications, for Ankara University, at the Eastern Mediterranean University and Izmir’s University of Economics. Currently she is the acting dean of Kadir Has University’s Faculty of Communications. Since 2000, she has co-ordinated and consulted projects within the framework of the Independent Communication Network project (bianet), involved with improving journalism. Her research and publications focus on topics such as the representation of women and minorities in media, local and alternative media and “peace journalism. She has edited and compiled books, such as, Human Rights Journalism, Female-orientated Journalism and Child-based Journalism.


Umut Alphan

Newspapers and patronage”

What triggered the breakdown in the relationship between Turkish readers and their print media, when did the trust that readers used to have for their media start to fracture and is it any longer possible to repair the damage done? How does the problem of patronage in media relate to this breakdown of trust and what impact does it have on how media is produced and consumed: how are newspapers seen by their patrons and how do newspaper subsequently tend to perceive their readers?

About Umut:

Born in 1977 in İzmir, Umut has now been a journalist for nearly twenty years. Seventeen years of his career were spent working for the daily publication Milliyet and for 12 years he was the director of an editorial office. Umut’s education was, however, originally in a slightly different field and he left university as a law student, before striking out into journalism.


Esra Arsan

A crisis of trust in the media after Gezi”

Esra Arsan spoke of the incompatible reporting of the Gezi Park protests: on the one hand, of the media narratives, and, on the other hand, of the conflicting realities of the streets. Esra will also look at the 17th December processes and the status of Turkish media reporting and “trust” in the aftermath of both the Gezi Park protests and the events of winter 2013/14. Esra particularly sought ot focus on the the role of the media in crises of trust, looking at how it behaves towards the state and the public and asking, whether there is really a public demand for the truth and what it is that the Turkish media presently supplies.

About Esra:

Born in 1966 in Istanbul, Arsan graduated from Marmara University’s School of Journalism and Public Relations in 1987 and began her career in journalism in 1985. In 1994, she went to the USA, where she obtained a certificate in American Studies from the University of Central Florida. Returning to Turkey, she worked as a media consultant and freelance journalist for various foundations and organisations. Arsan started her academic career, as a teaching assistant in the Communications Faculty of Istanbul’s Bilgi University. In 1999, she obtained an M.A. degree in film & T.V. studies from Marmara University’s Institute of Fine Arts, with her thesis film consisting of a documentary entitled The Death of a Journalist: Metin Goktepe. As a recipients of the Reuters Foundation journalism fellowship, awarded each year to a limited number of journalists, she spent the 2001-2002 academic year at Oxford University’s Green College, where she prepared a research paper entitled The Representation of the “Other” in Turkish News Media: Islamists and Kurds. In 2006, she obtained her Ph.D in journalism studies from Marmara University’s Institute of Social Sciences, with a doctoral dissertation entitled, EU Journalism and Creation of the European Public Sphere: The Cases of Greece and Hungary. Esra Arsan is currently an associate professor of journalism at Istanbul’s Bilgi University’s Institute of Social Sciences. Arsan has also published three books: The EU and Journalism, Media Watch and Media and Power: Hegemony, Status Quo, Resistance.

Pınar Dağ

How can we restore trust in the media?”

Pınar Dağ spoke about how those who work in the media manipulate data, how we must make it possible to be able to confirm the authenticity of that data and the importance of the clarification and validation of all information, which is used in the media. She focused attention on the Soma disaster, which resulted in the deaths of 301 miners and how confused the reporting of this event became, making it difficult to distinguish the real facts about what was happening and to give the story the gravity that it deserved. Pinar alsospoke about recent developments and how the Turkish media, especially the digital media sector, has been adapting to modern technology, with the increasing ability to post news stories on social media almost as soon as they occur. She looked at how this speed of information actually damages people’s news reading habits, making them less likely to question the quality of the data and drew attention to how we must improve this in order to be able to regain our trust in media sources, through both investigative and data journalism.

About Pinar Dağ:

Pinar Dağ is an economics graduate who studied journalism at the London School of Journalism. Since 2005, she has reported both as an independent and attached journalist. She has taught research and data journalism at various institutions in the UK, the USA and Turkey and carries out research in the field of business data for an institution based in San Francisco. In addition, Pınar Dağ is the co-founder of Dağ Medya, an online newspaper which provides data journalism content in Turkish. She also spent over two years researching the field of data journalism and, during the 2013-2014 academic year, Pinar taught a course in data journalism training at Kadir Has University‘s New Media Department. Pinar continues to be active in various faculties of communication within and without Turkey and she is currently leading a team of 20 volunteers in the production of a Turkish translation of an open source data journalism handbook. Pinar is also still furthering her own education and pursuing an online course in the field of data science at the John Hopkins University.


The moderator of this debate was Murat Çelikkan:

Murat Çelikkan spent thirty years working as a journalist. He started his career writing for the Demokrat and eventually ending up working as a reporter, editor, managing editor, columnist and chief editor in various media outlets. Most recently he worked for Sabah, where he made the decision to step back from active journalism. Even while active as a journalist, Çelikkan spent time as the director of several human rights organisations and NGOs and this is the role he has now moved onto, working currently as the director of Hafıza Merkezi [Truth, Justice and Memory Centre].