Credit: Photo by Uday Mittal on Unsplash

Helping the public understand how journalism works could help address low levels of trust towards the media, suggests a new report by press regulator IMPRESS.

The News Literacy Report shows the link between low levels of media literacy and trust in the news, based on a nationally representative survey of 3,000 respondents and in-depth focus groups. It was published in collaboration with the Universities of Leeds and Derby, by professors Julie Firmstone and John Steel.

Seeing is trusting

The UK media is regulated by the likes of IPSO and Ofcom. Anyone in the industry knows this. But apparently, one third of the public is totally unaware that any ethics codes or standards exist. Half of the public also knows little or nothing about how newsrooms select and process their stories.

There is a widespread feeling that the media can publish what they like without consequence and the news of the day is determined by a higher, corporate agenda.

To emphasise the point, of those respondents who did not know if journalists are regulated, three quarters also did not trust the news. The message is clear: people do not (or perhaps cannot) trust what they do not understand.

The silver lining is that when audiences have a greater level of media literacy, they also show a greater level of trust. Improving media literacy is one way to stem the erosion of trust - remembering that there is a variety of reasons why distrust forms.

Two thirds of people say they would trust the news more if they knew more about its production, and 70 per cent say knowing more about regulation would have the same effect.

Currently, regulation and individual complaints procedures are largely invisible to the public and need greater signposting, clarity and emphasis. Far from being a turn-off to readers, respondents showed an appetite for this information, actually learning about news processes by virtue of participation in the research.

"It’s clearly not ideal that our respondents are learning about how journalism works by taking part in a study," says co-author John Steel, speaking at the report launch event this week.

Points of implementation could be signposting on the website and to helplines around sensitive issues, more balanced coverage around large topics and membership to a regulator like IMPRESS that is visibly displayed on platforms.

"Current news literacy levels are low and the public is confused, not just about how the news works but how it is regulated and what standards apply," says IMPRESS head of regulation Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana.

"Independent regulation and higher news literacy could have the potential to rebuild trust in the news and ensure a strong independent news sector that builds on wider trust and democratic institutions in society."

The rebuilding process

How all stakeholders can collaborate to play their part: regulators, policymarkers, civil society and publishers?

Tchiyiwe Chihana is the chair of the Independent Media Association and the director of the non-profit think-tank Opus Independents, which also publishes Now Then Magazine, a monthly, citizen-led community publication.

She says that the media has a key role in deepening trust in public institutions. Community members must be able to rely on their local media to know what is happening on their doorstep. The solution will likely need to be a proactive one.

"It’s our time to be innovative," says Chihana. "Independent media is fragile, but we are well placed within the community to regain trust because we are part of the fabric."

Jem Collins is the founder of JournoResources, an organisation that provides media training, tips and advice. She sees the next generation of journalists as critical players in bridging the gap between audiences and newsrooms. They are more motivated than ever to try and create change.

News leaders must provide opportunities for this passion to burn, and at the same time, be open to change. Too many news websites bury their complaints process; those details should be more accessible. Collins went as far as to suggest publishers should pin the complaints contact to the top of their Twitter profile.

"Newsrooms cannot see this as a tickbox exercise or something they need to do when someone complains. They should think: how should we organise our newsrooms in 2022 and beyond to make sure we have a positive relationship with the people we’re trying to serve?'"

Ofcom is well known for its complaints procedure but it is now doing more to engage with the public.

Its Making Sense of the Media research initiative is one way it is engaging with those often left behind when it comes to media literacy efforts: older adults, the under 14s engaging with the internet independently for the first time, or people with poor mental health and disabilities.

This requires working with community groups and considering points of intervention on how to develop media literacy skills amongst these demographics. More organisations are doing similar work directly in schools, like The Student View or the News Literacy Network. Fay Lant, senior associate of media literacy at Ofcom calls for more of this.

"There is a role to be played for the platforms, for producers of content and also people accessing it," says Lant. "We need to make sure we’re upskilling people to really understand what they’re looking at."

It is clear from the research that the public has a sophisticated understanding of the various functions of news, and has built different news habits such as choosing a medium based on the story of interest, or when to opt for local news because it is perceived as more trustworthy than national media. That is to say, different stakeholders need to play different roles here.

"We are finding that trust is multi-dimensional, it’s fragmented across different kinds of outlets, it’s differentiated according to news use and engagement," says co-author Julie Firmstone.

"The more people engage with the news, the more they will trust it — that is a good news story. It would be awful if it was the other way around."

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