Credit: Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

New research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) sets out to better understand what causes low levels of public trust towards the news industry.

The new report published last week is the first of its Trust in News project, a three-year, Facebook-funded effort carried out in four significant digital news markets: Brazil, India, the UK and the US. The authors spoke to 82 journalists from the major media companies in those countries to gather data.

Perhaps to no surprise, the first report concluded that there is no single 'trust in news' problem. But it detailed what the researchers do know about trust, and identifed the knowledge gaps which the project will zero in on. emailed Benjamin Toff, RISJ senior research fellow and leader of the Trust in News Project, to talk about the lessons from the first report and what it means going forward. Responses have been lightly edited for brevity.

Trust in the media is a vast subject. What is clear and consistent about this topic that served as a starting point for The Trust in News Project?

Courtesy: RISJ/Benjamin Toff (above)

One of the major challenges around studying this subject is that it can be difficult to pin down not only what is meant by trust in news but what the most important factors are for building and sustaining it. That is true for both news organisations themselves, the researchers who study trust and audiences with preconceptions of what trustworthy journalism looks like. After all, trust in news is a relationship between trustors and trustees. It is not only about rigorous standards and journalistic practices employed by newsrooms but about how the public thinks news should work and does work.

We need more empirical evidence about what the public thinks across the four countries that are the focus of our study. We will then look at what actually works when it comes to building trusting relationships with those audiences. As we write in the report, too much of the existing research on this subject has been focused on a handful of countries and has been too disconnected from practice.

Do you think that 'trust in media' is an abstract feeling or is it genuinely the result of grievances that people have with the news industry?

This varies considerably. If you ask people to formulate survey responses about 'the media' in general, they are more than willing to do so, but it can be very challenging to interpret measures like this. What 'the media' means to people today is quite different from what people 20 or 30 years ago might have had in mind.

We want to better understand what people think about different sources of news — those they use and those they do not — and what shapes those attitudes. Surely some people can articulate specific grievances about particular news sources or digital platforms. Some of those critiques may be driven by personal experiences, frustrations about the digital landscape generally, or long-standing complaints about past coverage that may well have been inaccurate or damaging to various communities. In other cases, political figures or other influencers play an important role in feeding trust or distrust around particular brands, whether or not it is warranted.

Our hope is that we can begin to capture and analyse these different dynamics and processes, among whom they occur and how. An important part of that is looking at this internationally across different kinds of political and media environments.

Is improved trust going to be achieved through the actions of individual news organisations, platforms, or any other players?

Our strong suspicion here is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. What may build trust with some audiences, such as engagement efforts like public newsrooms or radical transparency around what goes into reporting and confirming information, may be alienating to other audiences who see such efforts, rightly or wrongly, as a violation of their own notions about quality journalism.

Some audiences really do want to know more about the individual journalists behind the news, how they do their work or what motivates them. But others will invariably see bias and subjectivity when given an opportunity to peak behind the curtain, and certainly not all news providers are deserving of trust. But none of this plays out in a vacuum. Our point is that news organisations need to be clear about the trade-offs involved in pursuing different strategies.

The other side of this equation is the broader media environment itself – especially the platforms that increasingly shape how people discover and engage with news. These dynamics happen regardless of the efforts pursued by any individual news organisation. Many of the journalists we interviewed were particularly concerned about how platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Google - and influential political figures - may handcuff news organisations' ability to shape their relationships with the audiences they seek to serve.

It is not at all clear at this point what might be done about that, although the Trust Project and the Journalism Trust Initiative may help shed some light. We expect to closely examine the role of the platforms and the broader set of forces that shape preconceptions about news.

Are there some audiences whose minds cannot be changed?

Absolutely. That said, some of the people who are most distrustful of conventional news in the US, for example, are actually highly trusting of particular sources of information whether it is Fox News or YouTube.

Even if it is very difficult to change people's minds about news in general, there is tremendous value in trying to better understand what drives people to trust the sources they do trust, how those relationships formed, and how they might change over time. When you think about the context of misinformation and disinformation circulating online, in some cases it may be that more scepticism is needed, not less.

The report talks about the need for greater transparency and audience engagement strategies. What opportunities and challenges does the pandemic offer?

For some, there is no substitute for showing up in person and engaging with people on a person-to-person level. This is especially true when it comes to communities that lack broadband internet access whether in India or the Mississippi Delta. The pandemic makes that more difficult and the same goes for scalability.

On the other hand, several of those we interviewed saw covid-19 as an important moment for news organisations, especially local ones, to prove their worth to their readers and viewers and listeners since the value of reliable trustworthy information and the dangers of false information have rarely been so clear.

Some organisations have redoubled their efforts around service journalism and explanatory journalism or fact-checking, focusing their reporting around basic questions that people need to navigate daily life. That has sometimes involved new ways of listening to audiences using messaging apps or social media outreach – despite the concerns about the role of the platforms in eroding trust.

Join us for week two of our digital journalism conference Newsrewired from 8 December 2020, with more industry expert panel discussions and workshops lined up. Visit for event agenda and tickets.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).