Assistant Professor Benjamin Toff leads the project for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
As trust in news falls around the world, a new report looks at the trade-offs involved in trying to regain and retain it
- A new report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism examines trust in news from the perspectives of journalists across the Global North and South.
- Declining trust has been linked to factors involving the production, consumption, and distribution of news with sometimes divergent implications.
- The report synthesizes views of practitioners with existing academic research.
Why is trust in news eroding? How does this decline play out across different contexts and different groups? What might be done about it? These are the questions at the heart of What we think we know and what we want to know: Perspectives on trust in news in a changing world, a new report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The report is the first installment from the Trust in News Project and summarizes some of what is known (and unknown) about trust in news, what is contributing to its decline, and how media organizations are seeking to address it.
The report, authored by Benjamin Toff, Sumitra Badrinathan, Camila Mont’Alverne, Amy Ross Arguedas, Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, takes stock of how those who study journalism and those who practice it think about the subject. It combines an extensive review of nearly 200 publications related to trust in news and 82 interviews on the subject with journalists and other practitioners across the US, the UK, India and Brazil. The interviews include journalists from the most prominent brands in each of these countries as well as additional voices of those working to address challenges in the information environment, both inside and outside of newsrooms.
What we think we know
There is no single ‘trust in news’ problem. Our research suggests there are rather multiple challenges involving both the supply of news and the public’s demand for information. Grappling with trust in news requires defining what is meant by ‘trust’, ‘whose trust’, and ‘what news’ as people hold varying beliefs about how journalism works, sometimes conflicting views about what they expect from it, and differing notions about the true state of the world. Thus, those seeking to regain or retain trust need to be specific in their strategic aims and, ideally, base their work on supporting evidence, as initiatives that work with one part of the public may not work with others.
Public understanding of how journalism works is low. Social media isn’t helping. So long as few know what goes into reporting and confirming information, audiences cannot be expected to differentiate between brands using informed assessments about newsgathering practices, which themselves vary considerably in quality. Research on the effectiveness of interventions designed to help people navigate digital media environments shows promise but what works, with whom, and under what circumstances remains murky. As newsrooms seek to communicate commitments to core principles and ethical standards, they must contend with reaching distracted users who may encounter their brands only fleetingly in their digital feeds.
Some distrust may be rooted in coverage that has chronically stigmatized or ignored segments of the public. Several interviewees highlighted what they saw as news organizations’ past failings in accurately reflecting the diversity of viewpoints in the communities they seek to serve. Many news organizations have sought to address distrust using various engagement initiatives and publicly reckoning with their failings. But focusing on some communities can alienate others. There is a considerable risk here of doing things that look good and/or feel good, or imitating what others are doing on the basis of little or no evidence, which could lead to wasted efforts at best and counterproductive results at worst.
Assessments of trust and distrust are deeply intertwined with politics. Ultimately, many attitudes about news may have little to do with newsrooms. As trust in other civic institutions has fallen, trust in news has typically followed with partisanship often serving as one of the strongest predictors of distrust. As cues about the press are often taken from political leaders, it leaves news organizations in a precarious position as they seek to carve out roles as independent, impartial arbiters of truth. Efforts to improve trust involve trade-offs in divided and polarized societies and can also be at odds with other important priorities, such as holding power to account.
What we would like to know
The authors outline four research questions that will shape the work of the Trust in News Project in the years to come. These are the questions:
- How are platforms damaging to news organizations’ brand identities? The experience of consuming news online is increasingly mediated by platforms often accused of eroding trust by obscuring differences between information sources. We want to investigate to what extent platforms may be contributing to these problems and/or ways they might be harnessed to improve trust in accurate and reliable news.
- Which audience engagement strategies build trust and which may undermine it? Newsroom engagement efforts are often based on intuition, and existing research has typically been too disconnected from practice and too focused on only a handful of countries.
- How much is too much transparency and what types matter most? Efforts to present journalists as real, relatable people rather than distant, faceless media figures seem important to improving relationships with audiences, but we know little about the effectiveness of such initiatives or their potential to backfire.
- Where do preconceptions about news come from and how can they be changed? Entrenched notions about news are likely based on a combination of factors ranging from personal experiences and identities to popular cultural representations of news. We want to know when, how, and why audiences might be willing to revise their preconceptions.
Dr. Benjamin Toff, Senior Research Fellow and lead author of the report, said: “The Trust in News Project’s first report underscores the complexity of the challenges involved in reversing declines in trust in news worldwide. There is likely no one-size-fits-all approach, but knowing what works, what doesn’t, and why is vital to avoid decisions that might waste already scarce resources.”
Contact and more information
About the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is dedicated to exploring the future of journalism worldwide. The Institute receives core funding from the Thomson Reuters Foundation and is based in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. It was launched in November 2006 and developed from the Reuters Journalist Fellowship Programme, established at Oxford 37 years ago. In addition to the fellowship program for mid-career journalists from around the world, the Institute hosts leadership development programs and research projects focused on the future of journalism.
This report has been published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism with the support of the Facebook Journalism Project.