Credit: Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

News on digital platforms is perceived as less trustworthy, according to new research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ).

Its Trust in News project studies four key markets - Brazil, India, the UK and the US. It found that there is a gap between levels of trust in news found on social media, messaging apps or search engines, and in the media more generally.

In the UK, roughly half (53 per cent) of people say they trust news in general - considerably higher than news appearing on social media like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube that only convince about a quarter of respondents. It is also more than the Facebook-owned messaging app Whatsapp (29 per cent) and only just ahead of the search engine Google (52 per cent). This holds true generally across different markets.

The Trust Gap via Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Trust in news on platforms is lower than trust in news in general

Overall, people like the platforms, despite persisting problems with misinformation and harassment. And the more they use digital platforms, the more they trust the news in general. Younger, politically engaged and higher educated people are more trusting of the news on these platforms as well.

But there is a clear generational divide. In the UK, just two percentage points separate under 35s (53 per cent) and over 55s (51 per cent) in their general trust towards news. But views of news on digital platforms swing wildly, with TikTok being the most controversial - 40 per cent of under 35s trust it but just 3 per cent of over 55s feel the same.

What does it mean for news organisations?

People use different platforms for different reasons. So the question is not only whether they trust the news on social media, but whether they get to see it at all.

For example, WhatsApp is used to connect with people. YouTube and Facebook are seen as places for entertainment. Google and YouTube are considered practical and informative spaces. Neither platform is used primarily for news - users rather stumble upon it while looking for something else.

Geographical context also matters here, as some platforms are more popular in different parts of the world. It is important to remember this when trying to grow presence and trust in the news.

The report concludes: "The trust gap we document in this report is likely a reflection of this mismatch in audience perceptions about what platforms are for, the kinds of information they get when using these services, and how people think more generally about news media."

So here is the conundrum: news organisations do need to meet platform expectations, improve their own reach and visibility, and by doing so, increase general trust in news. But they also do not want to be beholden to tweaks platforms make to their strategies and algorithms.

Co-author of the research and RISJ research fellow on the Trust In News project, Dr Camila Mont'Alverne told Journalism.co.uk via email that 'playing to the rules of platforms' is not the ideal solution.

"Part of the problem is that people have a hard time identifying brands and quality reporting at all, which is not necessarily going to be solved by putting more stories on platforms or changing their tone. 

"The challenge for news organisations seems to be about being seen as providing something valuable in the first place, in an environment with audiences that do not necessarily pay close attention to sources or other cues that would help them assess the reliability of the information they are encountering."

Organisations with a loyal audience, she adds, who consume news directly are not as vulnerable to platform changes as digital- and social-first news outlets. Publishers in the global south, however, find it harder to extricate themselves from the platforms because fewer people are coming to their websites directly.

Meanwhile, significant portions of news audiences are still offline, especially in the global south where internet access is more limited. Either way, it is crucial not to overlook engagement with these groups, where deeper connections and higher levels of trust are required.

"In the end, the challenges around building trust might require different approaches from different news organisations and institutions, but the problems are pretty similar," concludes Mont'Alverne.

Read the full report here.

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