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Publishers are regaining public trust

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Covid-19 afforded an opportunity to prove that the media was on the public’s side. Organisations have been able to capitalise on the moment and win back some public support, everywhere except America. Peter Houston rounds up the year in trust as part of our Media Moments 2021 report.

Trust in the media has been falling since before we started writing our Media Moments reports in 2018, but the pandemic seems to have brought some respite. In almost all of the 46 countries examined in this year’s Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute, trust in the news media was up. It might be up because people needed news more during the pandemic, or maybe because the facts were easier to see, but it’s up.

Geographical differences

The proportion of people in the UK who said they trusted the news rose from 28% to 36% in a year. Although still nowhere near the 50% trust ratings recorded before the Brexit referendum broke Britain, that’s a big single-year increase.

The one place trust in the media stayed low was America. Only 29% of Americans claim to “trust most news most of the time”, the lowest trust rating of the 46 countries studied for the 2021 Digital News Report. 

This is hardly surprising given America’s fractious political landscape. Political divisions factor heavily in whether people trust the media; more than half of people who consider themselves left-leaning believe the media “cover people with their political views fairly”, compared with just 16% on the right.

There are many reasons for falling public trust in the media, not least untrustworthy media. But increasing government attacks on the press, seen across the world, don’t help. Inspired, or at least egged on by the press-baiting antics of Donald Trump, governments across the world have set themselves against journalism.

In Britain, the Conservative government wants to bring the BBC to heel. Beijing effectively closed a pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper. A Belarussian blogger was pulled from a plane forced to land by fighter jets. And that’s only the Bs.

Time to rebuild

Chronicling the causes of the declining trust in world media has become a full time job. From politically motivated slurs of ‘Fake News’ to the proliferation of misinformation peddled by bad actors, untrustworthy information is more visible, and more highlighted, than ever.

Figuring out how to rebuild trust is also a full time job, with discussions about what to do raging across journalism schools, think tanks and newsrooms all around the world.

For some, it’s all about a return to the facts. According to the Digital News Report, 66% of respondents want their news media to remain neutral and 74% believe reporting should highlight a range of views, rather than taking a position.

For others it’s about transparency. Following the BLM protests in 2020, a Bloomberg employee is said to have remarked: ‘Reporters are meant to be objective, but to many the distinction between right and wrong now seems obvious.’ 

A significant minority – 24% – want what they see as a ‘façade of neutrality’ dropped, believing there are news topics where, “it makes no sense to try to be neutral”. Thinking of the reporting covering COVID and increasingly the Climate Crisis, this makes sense.

The INMA report, How News Brands Are Rebuilding Trust, suggests that data from public surveys shows it is possible to rebuild trust, but that action is needed immediately. The report author is Sally Lehrman, founder of The Trust Project, an international consortium of news organisations building standards of transparency and working with tech platforms to amplify journalism’s commitment to transparency, accuracy, inclusion, and fairness.

At the core of the Trust project’s work are eight trust indicators that help determine the trustworthiness of a story. Lehrman believes that the pandemic has alerted more people to the value of accurate news and their own role in choosing it. She writes, “The news industry must connect even more deeply to the principles of social responsibility at journalism’s heart and become the people’s trusted, responsible, and responsive ally. We must do so not just for philosophical reasons, but for our very survival.”

This survival sentiment is more than just an existential cry in support of ethical journalism; a line can be drawn directly between trust and monetisation. A Knight Foundation study into how age impacts how Americans view the media shows that while older readers display brand loyalty, younger readers are more interested in accuracy and transparency.

While 68% of the 18 – 35 year olds surveyed said the news media is “critical” to democracy, only 32% agreed a news organization’s brand is very important. Consequently, they are more likely to look at other sources or independent fact-checking sites when they feel uncertain about facts in a news story.

The report sums up the prospects for future news providers perfectly: “Young Americans are responding to the changes in today’s media environment with efforts to be more discerning news consumers.”

The bottom line is, publishers that can’t prove their trustworthiness through establishing the provenance of their content and the processes through which it is created, will face an uphill battle connecting with future audiences.

This article is an extract from our annual report, Media Moments 2021. For more on this chapter including case studies and key statistics, download it now for free.