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What “trust in news” means to users: Insights for publishers, from Reuters Institute

“Trust often revolves around ill-defined impressions of brand identities,” according to a new Reuters Institute report, “and is rarely rooted in details concerning news organisations’ reporting practices or editorial standards – qualities that journalists often emphasise about their work.” 

The report, Listening to What Trust in News Means to Users, shares insights on what people think of the media they encounter everyday and how it shapes their trust. It is based on open-ended conversations with cross-sections of people in Brazil, India, UK, and the US.

The authors do not make statistical generalisations, but are better able to grasp the context around how people form their views and why. The findings can help publishers formulate more effective strategies to foster trust among readers.     

“Audiences draw on shortcuts shaped by past experience”

When asked what they thought about the news media they consumed or came across in their daily lives, readers’ perceptions tend to be built around their sense of familiarity with brands. Sometimes this is more about intuition than rational judgment. 

Audiences draw on shortcuts shaped by past experience in some cases, partisan or social influences in other cases, as well as contextual factors involving social media, search engines, and messaging apps, which are increasingly central to how people find and engage with news worldwide.

Listening to What Trust in News Means to Users, Reuters Institute

Participants frequently mentioned relying on brand-level impressions based on rules of thumb or context clues to determine sources’ reliability and credibility. For example, many readers tended to trust publications they have seen being consumed in their families through their childhood. 

I grew up watching the BBC…I grew up watching George Alagiah. Sometimes, you build that rapport with a presenter, and you think, ‘What they’re saying is correct’. I can’t get that with Piers Morgan and Good Morning Britain, anyone on those particular forums or channels. Channel 4, I can. It’s really odd. Maybe there’s something there, just because somebody’s saying it who’s in that position, that I’ve known all my life, I’m more inclined to trust that information.

Alice (34, woman, UK)

“Deciphering of trustworthy news sources”

Stylistic qualities related to appearance or how news is presented are also influential. Comments about appearance often touched on the functionality and usability of websites. “I’m very wary of what the website looks like,” said Gemma (23, woman, UK). “If there’s a lot of pop-ups and lots of different photos of different things and it’s quite a clogged website, I tend to not trust the news as much. It is a weird way of thinking, but if it’s not as posh-looking, I tend not to trust it as much.” 

“There’s a feeling of ease when you read something that’s clean, clear and precise, well-written. I feel more relaxed and therefore more likely to trust it, to be honest,’ adds Lawrence (55, man, US). 

The longevity of a publisher, its track and reputation contribute to its credibility as well. ‘“Well, of course, there’s the history, they’ve got a long history of journalism there,” said Mary (40, woman, US) when asked why she trusted the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Some also believe that the longevity of existence was also an indicator of the high standards of a publisher. “It’s more because if they are a big enough brand, an old enough organisation, they seem to have better practices,” said UK based Andrew (25). “I guess there’s better regulations, I guess they get in trouble if they misreport facts. So, I think that is the main reason, the main deciphering of trustworthy news sources, and the best way to find it.”

Reliance on sensationalism and click-baits can affect the credibility of a publisher. Antoine (29, man, UK) said he looks at the tone of headlines to determine ‘if something is being used to just rile people up or … you read a headline and then you read the rest of the article, you’re like, “Hang on a minute, that’s not even what you’re saying in this headline”’

When they were not familiar with a brand, many participants said they would rely on the judgments of people they trusted.

“This brings more certainty and credibility”

Most participants put far less emphasis on news organisations’ journalistic practices. This was also because only a few were particularly knowledgeable, or interested in knowing how news is produced. Those who were, talked about a number of things, like the importance of correction policies as evidence of professionalism which adds to their credibility. 

Source: Listening to What Trust in News Means to Users, Reuters Institute

Many expressed preference for in-depth reporting, and reporters asking hard questions. The presence of numbers or statistics or visual signals boosted the credibility of the news for some. They saw these cues as indications that journalists had carefully studied the situation they were reporting on. “It is super important that the news are detailed with sources, statistics, and graphs, and seen from several different perspectives,” said Júlia (31, woman, Brazil). “This brings more certainty and credibility to the information.”

The participants also talked about qualities that are less tangible and concrete. One interviewee said that he liked New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks because of his integrity even though he disagreed with his political views. 

Objectivity and impartiality scored high for many participants who said they would prefer journalists keep their opinions out of reporting and stick to facts. Others were more accepting of opinions as long they were not biased. There were also those who recognised that their own interpretation of what is factual depended on their own subjective point of view. Many said they opted for generalised scepticism towards all news outlets as a protection against being misled or manipulated.

I won’t say 100% is true and 100% believable. We need to think proportionally about it, and we need to search and then trust, not trust blindly anything. 

Kavita (43, woman, India)

The pros and cons of platforms

This skepticism extends to the platforms as well. Most participants said news consumption was not their primary goal for using social media and messaging apps. There are pros and cons for news consumption and distribution on platforms for users as well as brands. 

Platforms allow easy access to a wide variety of new sources which users can control. They can find perspectives, stories, and original reporting on topics perceived as missing from conventional news coverage. Earlier research has shown that people who use digital platforms for accessing news tend to engage with a wider variety of sources. This is an important motivation for publishers seeking to engage with users on platforms. 

However, navigating the digital information environment can be challenging for those who do not have existing trusting relationships with one or more news providers. Moreover, readers’ perception of news sources can be influenced by their engagement with platforms. 

Many described how platforms not only made it easier to cross-check information between sources but also how those sources seemed interchangeable, making it difficult to discern where stories originated online and even undermining trust in the information environment more generally.

Listening to What Trust in News Means to Users, Reuters Institute

“What generates attention on Facebook and WhatsApp may not be the forms of journalism news organisations would most wish to highlight in building reputations with their audiences, further confusing brand identities in the eyes of users,” the authors explain. “There are of course risks to not appearing in these spaces as well, but publishers must weigh these costs in a clear-eyed manner as they seek to expand their reach in digital spaces.” 

“Define their own identities”

“These findings point both to opportunities and challenges for news organisations that seek to build trust with their audiences,” the authors add. 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.”

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

Brand reputations – good and bad – cannot always be controlled, but news organisations fail to define their own identities at their peril.  

Listening to What Trust in News Means to Users

The full report is available at Reuters Institute:
Listening to what trust in news means to users