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“The public’s trust cannot be taken for granted”: Media Moments 2023

2023 has seen a number of ongoing trends around the public’s trust in media run their course – but individual incidents at the BBC, Fox and more demonstrate the scale of the risk for getting trust wrong. Media Voices’ Chris Sutcliffe further explains…

In the last few Media Moments reports we have bemoaned the lack of progress news publishers have made in regaining the public’s trust. While a lack of belief in an outlet’s mission to protect the public has a negative impact on its ability to generate revenue, it also limits its ability to hold power to account. While growing that trust has been on the agenda of the news industry for years, 2023 has demonstrated there is still considerable work to be done.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report has found that trust in the news has fallen, again. This time the figure has fallen by a further 2 percentage points over the course of the year. Worse, the report states that fall has reversed “the gains made at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic” in many places.

Geographic differences in trust

There is, as expected, significant variance by country. Some of the statistics are, frankly, scary. The Reuters Institute study found that only 19% trust most news “most of the time” in Greece, the lowest figure in the study. In the UK, meanwhile, the overall trust score stands at 33%.

The UK also has wide variance in trust in its individual news outlets. The Sun, for instance, is far and away the least trusted general news source, while the BBC ranked among the highest at the point of the research being undertaken by YouGov. 

The year has been categorised by some flashpoints around mistrust in individual news outlets, however, which demonstrate the extent to which trust cannot be taken for granted. After the twin incidents of the BBC censuring presenter Gary Lineker for his views and the revelation of chairman Richard Sharp’s ties to the ruling Tory government, the BBC lost its most-trusted crown to rival broadcaster ITV. 

Similarly, in the US, 21% of Fox viewers trusted the network less after the revelations in the Dominion lawsuit, during which it was found its presenters and owners were knowingly misleading the public.

It speaks to a landscape in which trust, even in venerable brands, can be lost far more easily than it can be recouped or even maintained. That is especially true when the commercial considerations of a newsbrand are perceived to overtake the need to keep the public informed.

Opportunities to grow trust

There is some potential light at the end of the tunnel. Per the Ofcom ‘News consumption in the UK 2023’ report, younger audiences rate traditional sources more highly than their older counterparts. Despite largely seeking out online sources for news, teens “tend to rate traditional sources better than their online counterparts”. The flagship BBC One/Two stations are considered to ‘provide trustworthy news stories’ ‘all’ or ‘most’ of the time by over four-fifths (82%) of its teenage users.

That finding is not universally accepted, however. Dr Amy Ross Arguedas, a Postdoctoral Researcher Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, worked on the wide-ranging Trust In News report. She says that there are a variety of results on the subject of young people’s trust in news – with much of the difference predicated on their use of social media for news consumption.

Ofcom found that in the UK social media accounted for 63% of all news consumption by 16 to 24 year olds, compared with 39% across the UK. That was primarily driven by trust in individual creators, raising the spectre of disinformation given that these news sources are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as traditional outlets. 

However, that is not just a social media phenomenon. In May Gallup found that audiences in general were also more likely to turn to one or more public figures for their news, suggesting that for a growing proportion of people personality is a better signal of trustworthiness than parent organisation. 

Transparency is also cited by some trust researchers as being an important foundation for rebuilding trust in public sources of news. Speaking at the launch of the Trust In News report in March, Deborah Turness, CEO for BBC News and Current Affairs says: “If you know how it’s made, you can trust what it says. Trust is earned.” That is in part disputed by Ross Arguedas, who notes that while transparency might be a signal of quality for some, it is not universal.

As discussed in our AI chapter, the rapid rise of generative AI has the potential to add far more noise to the digital information ecosystem. While the extent to which it is a brave new world of misinformation versus simply a new tool for creating it is unclear, there is a huge opportunity for news publishers to take advantage of the public perception of AI. ‘Human-made’ might be as much a differentiator in terms of trust as it is a commercial proposition.

Media Makers Meet – Mx3 is proud to be the media partner for Media Moments 2023, the report written by Media Voices which analyses and tears down the major media events of the past year. The report is free to download and is available here.