Benjamin Toff investigates what’s driving declines in trust in news, both at home and abroad.
Over the past few election cycles, “fake news” has become a phrase that sends shivers down the spines of voters all along the political spectrum. WIth so much misinformation overtaking many forms of media, it’s no wonder that more and more people turn a wary eye to news outlets. However, suspicion towards the news extends far beyond national borders.
In 2019, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in the UK sought to more deeply investigate why levels of public trust in the news were declining in so many places across the globe. When the Institute saw that a complex methodology was needed to analyze this issue, they turned to Assistant Professor Benjamin Toff.
A Different Approach to Distrust
Toff’s introduction to research on trust and distrust in the news began while working as a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford University in 2016. Back then, his primary research focus was on news avoidance: when do people turn away from the news, and why do they do that?
Toff’s research methodology also sets him apart. Data and hard numbers are, of course, essential to discovering meaningful, generalizable findings in any field. However, they are not the only forms of evidence that can be analyzed. Toff employs a type of mixed-methods research that incorporates not only quantitative analysis of surveys, but also interviews, narratives, and other qualitative data. These, he feels, offer a more well-rounded picture of the numbers and charts.
Toff’s preferred research methods, as well as his international experience and expertise in news avoidance, made him the perfect candidate to help lead Reuters’ Trust in News Project.
Breaking Down Trust in News
Over the course of three years, Toff, along with a team of media experts he put together from the UK, India, and Brazil, sought to answer three essential questions:
- What is trust in news?
- What is contributing to recent declines in trust?
- What can be done to restore faith in ethical news outlets?
This project was unique because, while others have studied similar questions in specific areas, this team was looking for solutions across media markets around the world where the information environments and political context often differ. To do this, researchers had to develop methods and survey strategies that could be compared across major international markets.
So too was the focus of this research unique. Often, research on trust in news starts from the perspective of journalists and the ways that people in news outlets think about what makes their work trustworthy. Toff, on the other hand, is pleased that he and his colleagues “put the public at the center of our research.” The team found that many media consumers tend to trust sources with which they are most familiar and have a long-term relationship, that they are most familiar with, rather than necessarily differentiating between sources on the basis of their specific journalistic practices.
He believes that the work performed by this group made great strides in answering all three of its main questions, although the third question about solutions remains the most challenging. While previous research has surveyed public attitudes on news before, the Reuters Institute team was able to develop a much broader view of the intertwined factors that influence the public’s relationship with news. While experiences people have directly engaging with news shape the ideas they hold about journalism, so too does the larger political climate and the changing media technologies they use to access information and the news habits they do or do not maintain as a result. Those habits in turn affect familiarity with individual news organizations and whether such sources appear trustworthy as a result.
Even as Toff is excited by the project’s findings around what the public says has damaged their opinion in news organizations, the answer to mending fences between news outlets and audiences is far from cut-and-dry.
Local Solutions to a Global Problem
The third guiding question to this research around reinstating trust in the news remains the most complex—and its answer, most elusive. The trouble with offering a solution to media trust is that no two outlets approach the same audience from the same place. Toff knows that “what’s going to work for one news organization is probably not going to work for another.” An approach that may appeal to a primary audience segment may only alienate a secondary one. One-size-fits-all answers simply don’t exist.
What does exist are the specific views of targeted audiences that individual organizations may seek to build trust with. Each viewer or reader group will be approaching news from different backgrounds and with a different set of apprehensions. Over the next year, Toff wants to take what he has learned from this research and work with individual news organizations to test what works, and what doesn’t, when they try to build back trust where it may have been lost. Ideally, he would like to establish whether the specific efforts they are adopting produce measurable impacts on audience attitudes towards these outlets, or news as a whole, in order to develop more concrete recommendations about context-specific best practices.
In addition to this work, Toff is helping to build out a database of local news sources in Minnesota. He has found that one of the biggest points of confusion among many local audiences is identifying outlets that focus on topics that matter to them and knowing where to turn for reliable information. Toff hopes that this database helps people find and connect with news organizations serving their communities while also helping to identify where gaps have developed and local news needs are largest.
After three years with the Reuters Institute, Toff is excited to be back at the Hubbard School. He hopes that his perspective on the public’s relationships to news can continue to add to the community of scholars and practitioners in the School’s orbit, and he can’t wait to see what new research builds on his own in the future.
By Regan Carter