Credit: Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis at the London School of Economics, shared in his 2024 Nieman prediction for journaliam "that journalists will realise that 'trust' is a useless metric of their work."

Patrick Johnson (above)

I disagree.

Trust is not "a useless metric." Beckett thoughtfully and effectively argues that trust is not really what we are measuring, especially as we should not expect the public to simply trust all media (i.e., misinformation machines and authoritarian regimes). He closes by telling us, "don’t go looking for trust in surveys. Whenever you're tempted to use the word, replace it with what you really mean."

It is an interesting argument; maybe those of us in the trust space misuse the word. But I do not think it is a useless metric. Rather, I think the metric in the current understanding is simply seen as monolithic (and maybe Beckett would agree).

I do not think it is unnecessary to understand how the audience trusts the news or to what extent they trust it. I get to do this in my work with Trusting News, an American-based organisation whose mission is to improve the trust and credibility of the news ecosystem through research and professional training. I do not think my colleagues - Joy, Lynn, or Mollie - would say their work is reflective of a "useless metric."

But I have learned from working with them and their organisation that trust is misunderstood, and often, those we are trying to reach see it drastically differently than those of us who study it. So, what I see relative to trust in 2024 is not that it is deemed useless. I see 2024 as a rich opportunity for us to conceptualise the term in a way responsive to our fractured and politicised media environments.

More specifically, I think 2024 is our opportunity to define trust and how differing and diverse communities define, appreciate, and interrogate trust. As I said before, trust cannot be defined as a monolithic concept.

For example, LGBTQ+, black and brown, and politically minoritised audiences would all, hypothetically, respond differently to our current trust metrics simply because how they experience the news is different; how the news has harmed them historically is different. Rural audiences will respond differently than suburban or urban audiences. Geographic borders and national systems mean different conceptualisations. We need to shift our ideas of trust to recognise its nuance.

We must spend more time interacting and interfacing with these communities to do this. In the academic community, this means shedding our scholarly assumptions and having new and difficult conversations with vulnerable and diverse communities. I recently spent time talking with LGBTQ+ journalists in the US.

Still, before doing so, I chose to speak with others in the community to identify a community ethics code to approach this research. This led to incredible conversations about trust and the news. In many respects, there were different conversations about trust than the ones Dr. Sue Robinson and I had when speaking with journalists who were trying to reach disengaged communities (e.g., rural conservative audiences and black and brown communities).

What was common was that all of the people I have spoken to acknowledge that academics make a lot of assumptions about how these identities trust the news. This bleeds to journalists themselves, who acknowledge that they often enter these spaces and find the loudest person in the room.

This leads to members of the community feeling misunderstood and, therefore, harmed. This impacts trust. But it also shows that we need to be present and have conversations about how we can achieve more trustworthy outcomes with individual communities. We cannot simply assume that all metrics hold true to all communities. And when we shed that assumption, we will have the opportunity to live more authentically and to achieve the metrics we have spent years attempting to understand.

In reality and practice, that means newsrooms must financially be willing to give journalists time to do listening sessions, meet the community members where they are at and are most comfortable, and find time for journalists to live within the uncomfortable.

Journalists must accept that being loud does not always mean being wise, and discomfort is often a place of learning and growth. Our practice will only get better and more trustworthy if we are able to slow down, share our process and practice (metacognitive thinking to become a more news-literate profession) transparently, and engage with our communities from a place of service.

Patrick Johnson is director of student media and assistant professor of journalism at Marquette University, and an ongoing research partner with Trusting News. Some of his research interests that overlap most directly with Trusting News are media literacy, an ethic of care in journalism and coverage of disadvantaged communities. He comes from nearly a decade of teaching high school journalism and English.

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