January 5, 2022

It has become an article of faith among editors and reporters that they need to come up with strategic efforts to build reader trust. However, a report late last year from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford offers a sobering caution:

Few efforts to build reader trust have reached beyond existing readers and likely subscribers to the truly skeptical.

I asked Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the institute, whether this should be read as pessimism about the entire trust effort of the last several years. “I would say realism,” he said. “Even if the truth is not entirely welcome … we need to be clear-eyed about the incentives (at play).”

Right now, those incentives turn out to be foremost retaining subscribers or broadcast audiences, often paired with adding a new paid digital base, according to the report. That means “few individual news organizations have clear incentives for investing in building trust with indifferent, skeptical, or outright hostile parts of the public.” In addition, few of the organizations with trust-building initiatives “can point to systematic efforts for tracking their effectiveness.”

The conclusions were based on focus group conversations with journalists from four countries — the U.S., U.K., Brazil and India. (An earlier Reuters survey report last summer found that trust levels are low worldwide and that the United States ranked last among 46 countries surveyed).

On the one hand, Nielsen said, the principal measure of trust is the attitude of lay users alone. But he and co-author Benjamin Toff thought it was worth digging deeper into how the trust challenge is playing out within news organizations. Given finite resources, it may make sense to individual organizations to focus engagement efforts narrowly on best prospects, the Reuters report authors write. The trouble is “for journalism more generally,” they continue:

If news outlets each focus on building trust with those already most likely to trust them — and many already compete for attention, trust, and reader revenue from the same, often already relatively trusting (and privileged) parts of the public — the people most indifferent to or distrusting towards news, who are most difficult to reach and most resistant to such appeals, and frankly often less commercially attractive, are at risk of being left behind or further alienated.

Editors in the discussions indicated awareness of the problem and offered some experimental solutions their organizations are trying.

Paul Volpe, who became editor of a new New York Times trust team in September, said the Times shares the Reuters perspective that there are groups of “hardcore loyalists who already believe you” and the “unconvertible who never will.”

The Times is focusing on defining a third, middle group who might be those who do not yet know what to think: “Maybe it’s a younger audience, maybe it’s someone who’s not exposed as much to media.”

One avenue to defining that group, Volpe continued, may be social media comments, many of them based just on the incomplete picture a headline paints rather than an assessment of the whole story. Such posts may point the way to subsequent stories needed to address commenters’ news concerns.

Suki Dardarian, senior managing editor and vice president of The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, offered a similar perspective from a regional newspaper: “If they’re older, disinterested people, how hard do I have to work to get those people, when I have a bunch of younger people coming in who might be more interested? Like, I’m not saying I’m writing them off, but you know, if I have to make some choices …”

She also spoke of Star Tribune initiatives considered successes in trust-building. Internal metrics suggested reader interest in uplifting stories so The Star Tribune has markedly upped its storytelling about faith, religion and spirituality.

Similarly an annual feature about lifestyle challenges, like cutting back on sugar or improving sleep, prompted the creation of a community format on those topics which has attracted thousands of comments.

For the toughest groups to reach, the report concludes that there are no easy answers, especially in a climate of polarization and media-bashing politicians. But it argues, “Much of the public sees journalism and news media as powerful institutions … and are unlikely to accept that the root of the problem lies elsewhere, or that they have few options at their disposal. Thus, giving up on building trust may look like a lack of real interest in the issue.”

I asked Nielsen for further thoughts on what outlets might do. He offered three.

“Familiarity does not breed contempt, and that’s quite encouraging,” he said. Outlets should not be reticent to “show the value of their work.”

Nielsen also thinks that outlets “should be as clear as possible about the mission of the organization,” particularly in an era where large segments of the public suspect hidden agendas. “You need to have ideals. Say it and then show it.”

Nielsen has noticed (as I have) how many of the best digital startups are explicit about their mission and editorial standards. Many newspapers, by contrast, “may be 100 years old, but it is easy to forget that, especially among a community of younger readers, what you stand for may not be known,” he said.

Third, Nielsen suggests — as the report does — that outlets need to spend some time facing facts about what they think about alternate trust strategies. “No one can do everything,” Nielsen said, but it has been easy to back into a narrow approach without much reflection.

He offered, as examples of creative approaches, a Canadian Broadcast Corporation initiative to embed journalists in pop-up newsrooms in remote Indigenous communities or the Los Angeles Times’ “reckoning with its own history” of inadequately covering the many ethnic and racial groups it intends to serve.

Looking forward, Nielsen suggested that outlets could borrow a page from the playbook of successful politicians. “You do one set of things to energize the base and another to reach the undecideds.”

His agenda for 2022 includes more academic work to understand the everyday impact of platforms and devising online experiments to see what’s working among what’s being tried.

I also asked for a reaction to the report from Joy Mayer, founder and director of Trusting News (and a Poynter adjunct faculty member). “It gets at some absolutely crucial tensions,” she said. “There are choices to be made about who you want to serve.”

Even if the goal ends up being just to seek a broader audience, she said, “you are going to encounter people who are hostile … and there are others who are misinformed or have reasons to be mistrustful.”

Her 6-year-old project, co-sponsored by the Reynolds Institute at the University of Missouri and the American Press Institute, has embarked on a series of experiments under the banner of “the road to pluralism.” It has been A-B testing, for instance — as the Reuters report recommends — whether explicit links to a mission statement make a given piece of content more credible.

The Reuters report notes that hostile assaults from some politicians on “the media,” so prevalent here, are a huge issue also for the Brazilian and Indian editors who participated in the study. The level of hostility toward journalists and their organizations, together with echo chambers for animosity and misinformation, have induced a grim mood among many journalists, the report found.

It doesn’t suggest any easy solution, but I would concur with the Reuters authors that this is no time to give up on identifying persuadable audience segments and a sustained effort to gain their trust. And for realism, as Nielsen suggested, about how far along outlets actually are.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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