Credit: Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Trust in news seems to be steadily declining all over the world. Although the pandemic has reminded the public of the importance of quality journalism, many people are still sceptical, even cynical, about the media.

Benjamin Toff

The trouble is, if swaths of the population stop paying attention to trustworthy sources of information, we lose that kind of shared reality that helps us maintain a healthy dialogue about topics that matter.

But who exactly does not trust the news and why? This is what the Trust in News Project, a three-year initiative by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), financed by Facebook, set to find out. Its third report Overcoming indifference: What attitudes toward news tell us about building trust brings data from surveys in Brazil, India, UK and the US.

Project leader and RISJ senior research fellow Benjamin Toff told he was genuinely surprised by how often people held fairly negative views about how journalists do their jobs.

"A very sizeable 25 - 40 per cent in all four countries said they believed news organisations 'very often' did things like try to manipulate the public or got paid by their sources while majorities believed news organisations tried to cover up their own mistakes. I knew cynicism about the press was widespread, but I was still taken aback by these numbers."

One of the most important, if unsurprising, findings of the study is that people are more trusting of news sources they themselves use and less so of those they do not. The more surprising fact is that this also applies to social media.

I knew cynicism about the press was widespread, but I was still taken aback by these numbersBenjamin Toff

Many experts have suggested that social platforms, especially Facebook, play an important role in spreading misinformation and are the least trusted sources of news. Even in its first transparency report, the platform acknowledged its difficulties to curb misleading content. Should we be worried?

"It may seem counterintuitive that news found on social media and messaging apps (especially Facebook or WhatsApp) are so much less trusted compared to specific news brands," says Toff. The answer is that low trust in news on platforms is often not driven by those who are using those platforms but by those not using them for news.

News brands seem to be more important to people than the platform - the report shows that those following their trusted brands on social media do not trust them any less than those accessing them offline.

However, Toff admits that the survey did not look at how relying on social media for news can impact people's ability to differentiate between news brands - and the trust they put in them - over the years.

Trust in news in the UK

In the UK, 78 per cent say they trust news somewhat or completely, which sounds pretty encouraging. But what about the remaining fifth of the population?

Those who trust news the least tend to be older, less educated, less interested in politics and live in rural areas. Interestingly, compared to other countries, a smaller percentage of people said it is important for them to know a journalist's gender, religion, race, or political affiliation.

What I think these results point to are the limits of symbolic representation alone.Benjamin Toff

At first glance, this sounds counterintuitive, as we keep on hearing that we need to diversify our newsrooms to gain audiences' trust, especially among marginalised and underrepresented groups.

"What I think these results point to are the limits of symbolic representation alone," says Toff.

"Simply disclosing how your newsroom looks more like the public probably isn’t enough on its own to persuade most people to be more trusting. That requires connecting with news audiences in other ways that involve the substance and quality of the journalism itself.

"Your average news consumer may not pay a whole lot of attention to the demographic backgrounds of journalists when making decisions around what news to trust, but that does not diminish the importance of diversifying newsrooms so they are more reflective and representative of the communities they seek to serve. Doing so matters for improving the quality of the journalism on offer. People are more likely to pay attention to that than to the people behind the bylines."

Toff went on to say that these are, after all, survey results and responses do at least partially reflect social norms and ideas about it being wrong to judge people, including journalists, on the basis of their race, religion or gender. But in reality, the public may be much quicker to make these judgements than they let on.

"And that has implications for both building trust but also losing trust when it comes to audiences who have their own prejudices about what a journalist looks like," he adds.

One of the problems is that UK journalists seem less involved in their communities. Among the four counties, the smallest percentage of people in the UK said they have ever known or talked to a journalist and over three quarters said they never interacted with one.

Although some data suggests that there is a correlation between having interacted with a journalist and trusting the media, it is hard to say whether that alone can help build trust. Toff says that it is possible that higher rates of trust among the class of people who have spoken to, or know a journalist, might have more to do with who those people are rather than anything causal about those interactions.

The million-dollar question: how to gain trust?

So now that we have a better idea of the problem, how can we tackle the lack of trust in news?

Building trust starts with making a stronger case for why the journalism you are offering matters.Benjamin Toff

First, Toff said that individual journalists seeking to improve trust in their work need to be mindful about whose trust they want to gain. Not all news audiences distrust the news for the same reason, so tailor your approach to their needs, preferences and world views.

Someone who is generally untrusting towards all or most brands is probably just not that interested in news, and especially news about political affairs. They are not looking for loads of detail about editorial practices or disclosures about processes. Your olive branch should be one of trying to establish relevance to their life.

Other audiences might be deeply engaged, but selectively critical of particular news brands. They will be the hardest to win over, and so you might need to go to greater lengths to show you are a trustworthy news source.

"Building trust with such readers or viewers or listeners starts with making a stronger case for why the journalism you are offering matters, what difference the reporting makes to their daily struggles, and what defines your organisation as distinctive compared to all the other sources of information they may encounter online," says Toff.

Much of this is beyond what a single journalist can do in their own work. But it is possible that as more people are exposed to stories that matter to them, the more they become interested and ultimately warm up to your reporting. After all, if you want to win someone's trust, you need to first register with them by starting to pay attention to their needs.

You can read the full report here.

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