Guest Columns Interesting and Timeless
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Through Covid, journalists have regained the public’s trust in the press

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The British public have a turbulent relationship with the publishing media. In May we read reports that in a YouGov poll almost three-quarters of people didn’t trust newspaper journalists. At the time this was attributed to the way the press had reported on the emerging Coronavirus pandemic, with accusations they were out of step with the mood of the nation. 

So in light of that, it was particularly heartening to read recently that Newsworks’ “World Without News” study showed that two-thirds of people now value and appreciate the media more than before the Coronavirus crisis began. 

Since its launch in Australia in 2011 – and two years later in the UK – the premise of The Conversation has always been to democratise news, bringing high-quality content to a wider audience. But despite our secondary ambitions to raise the reputation of journalism, nearly a decade has passed since then and, in that time, trust in journalism has sunk lower and lower. 

Why then has it taken a pandemic to show the value in journalism? I suspect it is, in part, because Covid has proved a great leveller. It is not political (though, somewhat inevitably, has started to be used as a political weapon of late) and can seemingly strike anyone at any time. The people writing about it are, on the whole, as vulnerable to catching it as any one of us reading their words. This has brought a degree of humility to their reporting, something that few other situations have instigated in modern times.  

But more than that, I believe the style of reporting has changed through the course of the pandemic. Where at first it was typically sensationalist – big, bold headlines, reports of an imminent vaccine, wild statements in which statistics had been taken at face value – over time the media has been forced to tone down the rhetoric. 

Not only did it become evident that Covid-19 was here to stay and that sub editors would rapidly run out of steam if they were to continue at their early pace, but the story became more complex. It became clear that greater nuance was needed – indeed demanded – and experts and scientists were given more and more column inches in which to explain the various complexities of the disease, such as R numbers and how to interpret and present data. 

For the media’s part I think the past six months have been a learning curve for them, too. Few  – if any – journalists have experience of reporting on this kind of global health crisis, but we are all used to seeing the big splashes promising a cure for cancer, or the ways in which an over-the-counter medication can add decades to our lives. These stories may sell papers but ultimately they offer false hope to readers who later feel cheated when they have cause to realise there is no such magic bullet available to them.

This is where the trust in journalism falls down. It gives the impression that information is being held back when actually it’s simply the way the media has reported on it. A study may show promise, but still be years away from clinical trials and human consumption. The public has grown weary of some newspapers turning these nuggets of news into arresting headlines which tarnishes other content with the same brush.

What we have seen through the Covid-19 reporting is the recognition that progress is being made, which is both exciting and something the public deserves to know about, but it is being reported in the appropriate context. 

From early on in the pandemic we saw a very real increase in appetite for expert opinion at The Conversation. Our stories, all of which are written by academics and curated by specialist journalists, were in high demand and in one period in March, 90% of our readers were consuming Coronavirus stories. 

To put that in context, from the start of March to mid May, The Conversation UK’s stories were read 50 million times​, with ​20 million unique visitors ​coming to the site in that period, 4.7 million of whom are in the UK. 

Like all other news publishers, we quickly discovered that at a time of fear and uncertainty, people wanted to hear what the experts had to say. 

And this interest doesn’t just come through our site, nor is it confined to highbrow, academic audiences. We operate under a Creative Commons licence which means any other outlet is free to publish our content in exchange for no more than a source citation. In a recent conversation with one of the major regional newspaper groups, I was told they had been republishing more and more of The Conversation’s stories across their portfolio because they knew their readers wanted to hear from experts but that they had neither the resources nor the relationships to deliver that type of content. 

The pandemic will have few positive lasting effects, but if it has given people cause to discover the availability of experts in the media, and in turn transform how the public view those people who deliver their daily news, then the long term impact of that should not be underestimated.

These past months have given readers a taste of widespread considered, realistic news reporting at a time when that is what they crave. The onus is now on the publishing industry as a whole to retain these increased levels of trust and earn our place in peoples’ confidence.  

Chris Waiting
CEO, The Conversation UK

The Conversation is the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists, The Conversation exists to democratise knowledge. Founded in Australia in 2011 and the UK in 2013, is an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and curated by a team of professional editors.