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“Trust—a vital lifeline in a commercially turbulent world for news publishers”: Insights from Knight Foundation report

A line can be drawn between trust and monetization. At a time when mainstream media is looking to protect, diversify and digitize its revenue streams, trust matters more than ever before.

Ian Gibbs in International Journalists’ Network

Knight Foundation has published a new report, Skeptics or cynics? Age determines how Americans view the news media. It examines trust in media across different age groups. Since trust is critical to building an enduring relationship with readers, the findings of the report will help publishers formulate more effective strategies for connecting with different age groups.

Here are key findings from the report:

30% of the 18-34 year olds, and 26% from the 35-54 age group say they trust national news organizations “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” compared to 41% of those who are 55+. Although young adults are less trusting of the news media than older adults, more than two-thirds say that it is “critical” to democracy. 68% of the younger audiences say the news media is “critical” to democracy, compared to 56% of 35-54 year olds and 51% among the 55+.

“Although we cannot determine which contextual factors may have contributed to why the contrast between younger and older Americans exists,” the authors write, “examining what younger and older citizens consider important when evaluating trust of news outlets can help further contextualize the trend.”

Differences between younger and older Americans seem to indicate a shift away from a foundation of “trusting the brand” or the reputation of a particular journalist toward transparency and fact-checking.

Knight Foundation study

The findings also show that older readers are more likely to be loyal to their preferred brands/reporters. 40% of older adults say that knowing and respecting a news organization’s brand is very important, compared to 32% of young adults. Younger audiences are also more likely to look at other sources when they feel uncertain about facts in news stories. They prefer conducting their own web search and checking out independent fact-checking sites when confronted with uncertainty. 

“More discerning news consumers”

“Evaluations of trust of news by younger Americans may not be simply cynicism,” the authors note, “but rather skepticism of where information comes from and how it is vetted.” This could be because “young adults often consume the bulk of their information online, where transparency and clear verification of facts may be hard to come by.” 

The data suggest that young Americans are responding to the changes in today’s media environment with efforts to be more discerning news consumers.

Knight Foundation study

This is also reflected in the findings. 83% of the younger readers (66% and 65% in middle and older age groups) think that it’s very important for publishers to provide links to research and facts to back up their reporting. 77% say how a publisher sources information and its degree of transparency is very important when assessing trustworthiness. 

“Explaining the process seems to be as important as the product”

These findings are corroborated by a study at The Center for Media Engagement, The University of Texas, Austin. Researchers tested different approaches to help newsrooms build trust with audiences. These included showing readers how journalists approached a story by adding an “explain your process” box to news stories.

They found that adding an “explain your process” box to stories improves perceptions of a news organization. The experiments were conducted with a mock news site called The News Beat, as well as with web pages that looked like they were from USA TODAY and the Tennessean. Half of the 753 participants saw a story with the “explain your process” box and half without it. 

Participants who viewed an article with the box rated it higher on 11 of the 12 attributes of trust compared to those who saw the same story without the box. Further testing revealed that the participants’ pre-existing trust in online news, political ideology, or whether or not they saw an article from USA TODAY or the Tennessean did not affect their perception of articles in the experiment.

“Deeper sense of how journalism works”

The importance of transparency in building trust has been underlined again and again over the years in different studies. 

Participants said they wanted a deeper sense of how journalism works — and how it’s held accountable — before they’re willing to trust what they see. When it comes to trust-building, explaining the process seems to be as important as the product.

Lisa Heyamoto in Digital Content Next

News publishers would benefit by “providing clearer cues and signals about who they are, their histories, what they stand for, and how they do their work,” note the authors of Listening to What Trust in News Means to Users, a Reuters report from earlier this year. 

They recommend publishers make it easier for users to find information about their missions and journalistic practices and also “promote their own unique strengths compared to their competitors in more consistent and memorable ways.”

Trust was once a hygiene factor: the bare minimum we expected from mainstream news. Now it is a vital lifeline in a commercially turbulent world for news publishers.

Ian Gibbs in International Journalists’ Network

The Knight Foundation report can be accessed here:
Skeptics or cynics? Age determines how Americans view the news media