Why readers are trusting news less, and what to do about it

Is it telling that my response to reports that trust levels in the news media are in decline is to immediately go off in search of facts and figures?

I suspect it is, and I’ll explain why in due course, but first here are some of those aforementioned facts and figures.

This year’s State of Media report revealed that a majority of journalists worldwide (71 percent, in fact) believed that the public was losing trust in news media.

Nieman Lab looked at the overall trust in media over a longer-term view and the conclusion was no rosier there. According to them, it has fallen, from 72 percent in 1976 to 32 percent in 2017.

However, over at Poynter, additional research showed that among Americans surveyed, trust in the media was actually on the increase, with 23 percent of Republicans saying they trusted it (up 4 points since 2017) and 86 percent of Democrats feeling the same (up 12 points in the same period).

Brand Keys’ recent survey of specific broadcast media dug into which outlets garnered the most trust and revealed that among the 4,000 people surveyed, the BBC emerged as the most trusted media source at 90 percent, with Fox News coming in second with 87 percent.

Yet another survey, this time from Pamco and focused on the UK market, revealed that The Guardian and The i were the most trusted “by their visitors” with 84 and 83 percent respectively.

Isn’t data great?

Who’s trusting whom, anyway?

But here we get to the heart of the matter. Doesn’t it follow that if you’re a regular user or reader of a certain news brand, you’re more likely to ‘trust’ that news source? Similarly, if you’re someone who’s a subscriber to The Guardian and asked to give your views on how trustworthy something like The Mail or The Sun is, isn’t it just as probable that the response would be decidedly less positive?

So what does all this tell us about trust, then?

Well, not that much.

Ask a sample of people about whether they trust the news and surely it’s not surprising that the results are less than edifying. Even when options are given about the extent to which you trust it (implicitly, mostly, sometimes, rarely, never etc) there’s just no way these kinds of reports can convey the complex issues at hand.

Are you talking about the news in general? Leading national titles? Print or digital? Local? Specialized? The news you read? The news you think other people read?

Trust isn’t something you can measure with a browser event: it’s a human behavior, which demands a human-centric approach to how it’s nurtured and how it’s evaluated.

The problem of source attribution

Taylor Blatchford, writing at Poynter got into this with her comments about source attribution – something which she says “can reduce readers’ trust by reminding them of their personal preferences and biases”. What this means is that when confronted with an article under its respective masthead, opinions are often already partially (if not fully) formed before the first words of the article are even read.

Staunch Breitbart readers are less likely to trust content emanating from The New York Times, just as those loyal to The Grey Lady are likely to sniff at reports coming from Mr Bannon’s former title. Our own political biases inform how and to what extent we trust news.

Here’s something interesting, though: according to the same article AP ranked highest as the most trustworthy news source. And – recent accusations of bias aside – the usually-branded ‘neutral’ BBC also ranked highly in another report.

Do more overtly neutral news outlets inspire more trust from their readers? Quite possibly. If readers like to have their own worldviews confirmed, news which is seemingly presented at face value, without bias, prejudice or agenda seems more likely to align with more people and cause less of a knee-jerk reaction against it.

At the very least, these outlets’ impartiality makes them accessible – and credible – to readers of all persuasions.

Emotion? Or cold, hard facts?


So, back to the introduction.

It’s perhaps deeply revealing that my attitude to trust is deeply entwined with notions of fact-checking and authenticity: it’s what I know, how I trained and central to how I think. It probably comes as no surprise that David Fahrenthold’s approach to transparency in journalism really appeals to me. I like the diligence with which The New York Times or The Guardian’s Caroline Cardwalladr fact check incongrous statements. I enjoy a good, sound investigation: I’m nerdy like that.

But, heed the wry comment made about President Trump by Salena Zito in The Atlantic a couple of years ago: “the press take him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not litereally”. Remember that one?

If we’re deeply entrenched in the world of journalism, we need to be self-aware enough to realize that others – our readers – quite possible aren’t. The fact that I’m not swayed by emotive, incendiary articles from The Mail reveals nothing more than the fact that I just don’t process information in that way.

This isn’t about value judgements: that’s where the profession has frequently become unstuck. Rather, it’s about individual publications understanding that if they want my trust, for example, they’re going to have to demonstrate transparency, research, and cold, hard facts. It’s about understanding what triggers your readers’ trust buttons, not your own.

Do you trust the brand – or the journalist?

Writing on Nieman Lab, Nancy Watzman suggested that part of the problem with trust in news has to do with the rise of social media – and not necessarily in the way that you’d think.

The digital age, she writes, “increasingly turns journalistic institutions into platforms for the personal brands of individual reporters”. Particularly in broadcast media, individual reporters have been able (or expected, depending on your view) to create and grow their own personal news outlet.

CNN’s Jim Acosta, who last week had his White House press credentials stripped from him after an encounter with President Trump, aired his grievances on Twitter. Others news heavyweights weighed in.

Over at the BBC, Laura Kuessenberg uses Twitter as her personal breaking news bulletin, and while the social media network is a useful weapon in her arsenal, it’s also putting reporter before broadcast network.

What would Walter Kronkite have done in a similar situation, and with the same kind of platform at his disposal?

Think local

In the States certainly, there’s a clear ideological correlation between trust and media (Republicans broadly take a much dimmer view of it than Democrats do), but it’s worth noting that another study – by Tina Dyakon and Mel Gran in Poynter – showed that despite this, three quarters of Americans – across the political spectrum – do in fact trust their local TV news channels and newspapers.

“Local journalism connects with people where they live and in ways that are relevant to their daily lives. Trust comes when there is a relationship, and for lots of people… the more personal relationship is with their local news source” – Neil Brown, Poynter President

In Europe, particularly in the Benelux, Nordics and Germany, there’s a strong sense of regional identity that’s been successfully coupled with local news outlets.

Should journalists be educating their readers about the processes involved in journalism?

Issues of trust and engagement can no longer be shrugged off as someone else’s problem. As Philip Eil wrote in CJR earlier this year: “journalists should also individually ask themselves what they’re doing about the trust in journalism crisis”.

Eil’s point is that there may be a gap in understanding about what the role of journalism actually entails. We should, he argues, be making “exemplary content about journalism a permanent and prominent feature of news reporting.”

Whether this manifests as consultation with readers in the preliminary stages of research and preparation (as effectively demonstrated by Hearken, Gather or the EJC) or in sidebars and terminology explainers in-article is likely to vary, dependent on the nature and scope of each individual publication. One thing’s clear: we need to be sure we’re on the same page as readers with this because as Trusting News’ Joy Mayer said when we spoke to her recently, that’s not always the case:

A lot of the things people say they want are things that journalists are already doing, for example hearing from multiple sides of a story, but the fact that they don’t feel that that’s being done and don’t recognize that tells me that we have a storytelling gap.”

Stick to your training, but know your audience

That same State of Media Report revealed that 81 percent of British journalists felt that accuracy was more important than speed when reporting – something echoed in other countries, albeit to less dramatic percentages. These processes form the foundation of journalism, but it’s of course not the entire job description.

Journalists, after all, are not stenographers. The facts must be solid, but it’s the context and the presentation which are vital. And, it’s with the latter two points where the potential to really engage with audience comes into its own. When Joy Mayer or Jennifer Brandel or Carrie Brown talk about engagement journalism, this is what they’re harking back to: understanding your readership to the extent that you’re confident that what you’re writing and how you’re writing it chimes with the needs of your demographic.

Do this groundwork, under those human nuances, and you stand a much better chance of securing the attention and trust of your readers.

Trust funds journalism

There is of course another reason – if you needed it – why all this is so important. “Trust matters to news brands because a line can be drawn between trust and monetization.” That’s Ian Gibbs writing for IJNET last year. This is the real kicker: if you don’t trust a news brand, you’re unlikely to be prepared to pay to read it. Higher levels of trust – and loyalty as well – are likely to indicate a propensity to pay.

Trust looks different to different people and in different contexts, but what generally holds is that where levels of trust are reported as high, the publication’s contents aligns with their readership’s needs.

Some achieve this by taking an ideological stance. Some by a philosophical one.

Others focus on a segment or specialized area of news content. Others on a geographical catchment.

Trust for readers is ultimately about having confidence in the thing you’re reading. That ‘thing’ will most certainly dictate how you write for your readership: from your subject matter (hopefully at least partially generated through collaborative means), to your markers of authenticity (with an extra side of facts for me, please).

What underpins everything is recognizing that trust is a human state, not a mechanical one. Newsrooms who are breaking the mold and doing well recognize this, and organize themselves around it too. If you’re talking about raising trust levels in journalism across the board – and political divide – it’s not always about fact-checking. It’s about knowing when your audience would be most receptive to fact-checking exercises. Not all will, all the time.

After all, you can’t trust someone you don’t know. Get to know your readers.

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