December 3, 2020

Why is trust in news eroding? How does this decline play out across different media environments and among different segments of the public? What might be done about it and at what cost — particularly when audiences may hold divergent views about what trustworthy journalism looks like?

These are the questions at the heart of a new study I have co-authored with colleagues from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The report, titled “What we think we know and what we want to know: Perspectives on trust in news in a changing world,” looks at some of what is known (and unknown) about trust in news, what is contributing to its decline, and how media organizations are seeking to address it. It is the first installment from the Reuters Institute’s Trust in News Project, a new initiative announced earlier this year, that aims to examine the factors driving trust and distrust across four countries with varying political and media systems: the United States, the United Kingdom, India, and Brazil.

Although we expect that most of the Trust in News Project will focus on better understanding news audiences in these four countries, we wanted to begin our work by seeking out the views of those who study journalism and those who practice it. This fall, our research team conducted an extensive review of existing scholarship and interviewed more than 80 journalists and other practitioners in all four countries who generously shared their time and invaluable insights.

The report summarizes what we have learned so far, highlighting what we see as important and all-too-often underexplored trade-offs involved in how to respond to changing attitudes about news.

We argue that it is not enough to do things that merely look good or feel good when it comes to building trust. These efforts actually have to work or they risk making no difference, or worse, being counterproductive.

To that end, the report highlights four things we think we know about trust in news and four key things we’d like to know. We expect these questions will shape the work of the ​Trust in News Project​ in the years to come.

What we think we know

  1. There is no single “trust in news” problem.​ Our research suggests there are rather multiple challenges involving both the supply of news and the public’s demand for information. Grappling with trust in news requires defining what is meant by “trust,” “whose trust” and “what news” as people hold varying beliefs about how journalism works, sometimes conflicting views about what they expect from it, and differing notions about the true state of the world. Thus, those seeking to regain or retain trust need to be specific in their strategic aims and, ideally, base their work on supporting evidence, as initiatives that work with one part of the public may not work with others.
  2. Public understanding of how journalism works is low. Social media isn’t helping. So long as few know what goes into reporting and confirming information, audiences cannot be expected to differentiate between brands using informed assessments about newsgathering practices, which themselves vary considerably in quality. Research on the effectiveness of interventions designed to help people navigate digital media environments shows promise but what works, with whom, and under what circumstances remains murky. As newsrooms seek to communicate commitments to core principles and ethical standards, they must contend with reaching distracted users who may encounter their brands only fleetingly in their digital feeds.
  3. Some distrust may be rooted in coverage that has chronically stigmatized or ignored segments of the public. ​Several interviewees highlighted what they saw as news organizations’ past failings in accurately reflecting the diversity of viewpoints in the communities they seek to serve. Many news organizations have sought to address distrust using various engagement initiatives and publicly reckoning with their failings. But focusing on some communities can alienate others. There is considerable risk here of doing things that look good and/or feel good, or imitating what others are doing on the basis of little or no evidence, which could lead to wasted efforts at best and counterproductive results at worst.
  4. Assessments of trust and distrust are deeply intertwined with politics. ​Ultimately, many attitudes about news may have little to do with newsrooms. As trust in other civic institutions has fallen, trust in news has typically followed with partisanship often serving as one of the strongest predictors of distrust. As cues about the press are often taken from political leaders, it leaves news organizations in a precarious position as they seek to carve out roles as independent, impartial arbiters of truth. Efforts to improve trust involve trade-offs in divided and polarized societies and can also be at odds with other important priorities, such as holding power to account.

What we would like to know

  1. How are platforms damaging to news organizations’ brand identities? ​The experience of consuming news online is increasingly mediated by platforms often accused of eroding trust by obscuring differences between information sources. We want to investigate to what extent platforms may be contributing to these problems and/or ways they might be harnessed to improve trust in accurate and reliable news.
  2. Which audience engagement strategies build trust and which may undermine it? ​Newsroom engagement efforts are often based on intuition, and existing research has typically been too disconnected from practice and too focused on only a handful of countries.
  3. How much is too much transparency and what types matter most? ​Efforts to present journalists as real, relatable people rather than distant, faceless media figures seem important to improving relationships with audiences, but we know little about the effectiveness of such initiatives or their potential to backfire.
  4. Where do preconceptions about news come from and how can they be changed? ​Entrenched notions about news are likely based on a combination of factors ranging from personal experiences and identities to popular cultural representations of news. We want to know when, how and why audiences might be willing to revise their preconceptions.

The full report is available on the Reuters Institute website.

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Benjamin Toff is a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.
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