To say news media is currently in the throes of a crisis of public trust is passé. And this has been the case – the predictability of it all, that is – for at least 10 years.
We know that the public don’t really trust the news media, and they don’t really trust journalists. Forbes Magazine reports findings from a 2018 Gallup poll that found that Americans studied trust librarians, military personnel, grade school teachers, and doctors before they trust those in the media industry. My fellow Australians similarly trust nurses, doctors, teachers, judges, and scientists far more than they trust journalists.
On “trust” scales journalists rate well down, usually in the same range as insurance salespeople, lawyers, real estate agents, used car dealers, and others who are commonly perceived to primarily trade in dishonesty. But despite there being a great deal of data around about the public's poor trust in journalism, it's unclear what this really means. Does the public think journalists are purposefully dishonest, for example? Is this why they are not trusted?
Or do they think journalists are biased because they do not support the reader’s worldview?
Or is their lack of trust related to a lack of transparency in the way journalists practice their work, as researchers and other commentators (including from this project) suspect might be the case?
Or perhaps mistrust, as some surveys have alluded to, is related to the sensationalist nature of news whereby the public feels news is exaggerated or twisted for maximum impact?
Or, based on more recent assessments of trusted professions, do people identify perceived self-interest of media organizations and journalists – which means the notion of the selfless journalist working to serve the public is now largely absent?
Building trust in a post-truth environment
There are complicated reasons for the way many people feel about the news media – and it does relate to some of these notions of lack of transparency, perceived bias, self-interest and in more recent times, the notion of post-truth and fake news. Associate Professor Jane Suiter, Director of the Institute of Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University said public trust in the ‘older institutions’ of politics and the media is continuously declining, to the point that many people believe little that the media says. The new environment, which calls for people to constantly share and engage has deprioritized truth and emphasised emotional connection with the content. The basis of the new post-truth environment, therefore, is ratings, not truth: “being fair and balanced does not drive ratings. This is the bedrock of the post-truth environment where truth is simply a matter of assertion.”
This resonated with me. I’ve researched community media – non-profit news in print, radio, television, and online formats – for the the past 20 years. While community media is so-called because they serve particular “communities of interest,” possibly local geographical communities, or cultural communities such as LGBTQI, or Indigenous peoples, or ethnic minorities, or youth, for example, community media are also so-called because of the community they create.
And when we evaluate the contribution of these media, we don’t just look at the people who listen, but the people who access them, the community groups who engage in programming, the local spokespeople who are given a platform there but nowhere else, the young journalists who are fostered and incubated there.
From this perspective, the crisis of trust is more about the perceived contribution of media to the community, and their (important) place within that community.
Audiences report that they return to these outlets because they feel the announcers and journalists are accessible; they feel the news site or the station belongs to their community and represents it in all its diversity; that the organization is delivering something of a selfless community service; and they have a standpoint but it is transparent.
Journalism as a “selfless” profession
The recent Knight Media Forum heard that there seems to be a connection between trust and occupations commonly seen as “selfless”: people trust professions more where they perceive there is no real personal gain for the individual such as librarians, nurses, and soldiers fighting for their countries.
Nurses, for example, are poorly paid compared to most professions and yet, they are helping people often at their most vulnerable, working through the day and night, offering care and comfort and giving to others.
But journalists and media organizations have trouble making the argument that their industry is selfless, even though true public service journalism is often poorly paid in comparison to other professions, offers less job security, and is carried out with the needs of the public and democracy in mind. For a lot of the time, though, journalistic activity is competitive to the point that journalists could be considered to serve their own interests rather than the public’s -- journalists may withhold information, for example, to ensure they (rather than someone else) gets the scoop; they may be directed not to cover certain industries or corporations in negative ways because of the impact this may have on the commercial interests of the media organization; and they may create close relationships with sources in order to secure a constant flow of stories, but this may negatively impact on their ability to really service the public in the way they report (that is, they may protect their source relationship over their responsibility to the public).
Yet there are recent examples to provide hope that there are many working journalists who are aware of the ingredients they need to show in order to garner the public’s faith.
Two examples come to mind and in both cases, journalists have been agitating against their media organizations in an effort to protect their integrity. In the first case, several hundred Australian journalists went on strike last year against significant changes in one of the largest news organizations, Fairfax Media, a traditional newspaper publisher that now has major online real estate interests. The striking journalists reported their concern that their employers “no longer see the commercial side of the business as a support for the journalism, but see the journalism as a support for the commercial side.”
Similarly, journalists at the Denver Post have recently publicly criticised their hedge-fund ownership group for failing to invest in journalism, calling the company “vulture capitalists” in their editorial pages and suggesting the newspaper should be sold to a new owner willing to support “good journalism.”
Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett published the package of articles heavily criticising the Post’s hedge fund owner, and told the New York Times he was aware he might lose his job. Yet, he said, “I had to do it because it was the right thing to do...If that means that I lose my job trying to stand up for my readers, then that means I’m not working for the right people anyway.”
And one of the striking Australian journalists, Amy Remeikis, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "This is us saying 'enough.' We have a responsibility to our readers to do the best job we can. And it's getting harder and harder to do that job every time there's cuts."
So there is evidence that journalists can be, and are, often selfless -- like nurses, or teachers -- to serve a greater public good. But we know that the perception – and in most cases, the reality – is that a great deal of journalism is generated with the best interests of commercial news organizations in mind. There is also a perception that journalists have a great deal to gain from their media work. Publishing and broadcasting can offer journalists influence and power, as well as membership in an exclusive club – the political elite, which includes the media elite.
To follow this idea, then, if we want to see an increase in public trust in media journalists need to find a way to overtly demonstrate the public service nature of their work which overrides the perception that they are serving the commercial needs of their organization, or their own professional advancement.
This will mean working hard to divorce newsgathering processes from commercial imperatives (either real or perceived); and distancing journalism from the political elite – or better still, proving that journalists really are providing a watching eye on the political elite, rather than “performing” democracy in cahoots with them.
Indeed, recent research from my teammates at the Membership Puzzle Project finds audiences want more participatory media that is more inclusive and that provides ways for them to contribute their own experience and expertise.
With this in mind, I turn a critical eye to some of the current commentary and research around public trust and the media -- because most of it poorly defines what “trust” really means. And I’ll offer some possible ways – some ingredients – for building readers’ faith, support and loyalty not just to individual organizations, but to the journalists and journalism more broadly.
Author Caroline Fisher, who has written extensively about the connections between media and trust, says there is a lack of definition within the research literature about what trust really means in relation to news media – “there is no single definition of trust or credibility in news media, and no agreed reliable and valid way to measure it.” In the absence of reliable measures, we might look to alternative, perhaps less tangible markers of trust, which I’ll come to in a moment.
Previous research in fields such as sociology, media psychology, communications, computing, and internet studies attempt to quantify public trust in terms of concepts such as honesty, ethics, truthfulness, and credibility, and asks people to rate media outlets on scales of 1-5, or to indicate the ‘truthfulness’ of their local news on a scale from 0 to 100%. (You can find the link to Caroline Fisher’s summary of previous work on trust and media credibility and related references here). Caroline’s review of past research found that simple questions about whether consumers ‘trust’ the news media they consume belie the complexity of the issue – nurses, for example, are considered the most ‘honest and ethical’ profession which assumes trust, but ‘trust’ is not the direct way that questions are usually framed in such surveys.
And in 2017 the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University released their Digital News Report, finding that trust of a media organization and political viewpoints were inextricably linked – simply, people trusted a news organization that supported their own worldview.
This meant that countries with the most polarized political systems (right vs. left, Democrats vs. Republicans, Labor vs. Conservative, etc.) reported the lowest levels of public trust in the media because they perceived significant bias in those sectors of the media landscape that did not support their own views.
The Membership Puzzle Project and my own research at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, leads us to think about whether “trust” is really what journalism, and research around the future of journalism, should be testing for and asking about.
New ingredients for talking about trust
If honesty, ethics, and truthfulness are one way of talking about and measuring trust in journalism, what are some other, alternative ways that we might be able to sense trust? What if we widened the lens on trust -- where else might we look for it?
A more nuanced and sophisticated picture of trust might provide news organizations with greater insight and more instructive ways to think about how they build trust within their practices and their organizations.
This might include, for example:
Access: an audience member's inclination to turn up and engage with a news organization by contacting journalists, providing feedback and comments, or visiting a reading room or public gathering place in the station/newsroom suggests a form of trust.
Another more nuanced measure of trust might relate to access but more clearly finds the journalists relatable – our work in Australia about community broadcasting found audiences trusted local radio stations because they felt the announcers and producers were “just like us – ordinary people.” Audiences reported announcers sounded like someone from their family, or that listening to the station was “like listening to a mate.” An important part of this is the lack of barrier between the audience and the announcers or journalists. This suggests the importance of journalists better connecting with and learning from their potential audience members – being “one of us” -- rather than with their official sources and their media organization’s outside interests.
And perhaps, in the contemporary digital and online environment where so much information is free to access, funding news reporting and publication (through subscription, membership, or old-fashioned single newspaper copy sales) is a strong indication of trust.
Would people pay for information that they did not really believe was reliable, honest, and aiming for truth when they can access so much for free?
Let’s keep these three ingredients in mind – the accessibility of the organization and its journalists; the journalists’ relatability (the ‘just like us’ factor); and innovative options to help fund the journalism and keep the news going.
Because while we can identify these important ingredients, there are some challenges to ensuring they’re achievable and able to be made routine in modern news production practices.
While supporting readers’ worldviews has been proven to cause readers to say they “trust” the organization, creating a media landscape with heavily politically polarized news sites, preaching to the converted is not the only way or the most sustainable path forward.
Indeed, the prevalence of “echo chambers,” particularly those potentially created by heavy social media use which delivers similar news and information based on algorithms, is a genuine issue for advanced democracies awash with online, media literate communities. While we note some of the opinion around echo chambers and filter bubbles is not as evidence-based as its widespread acceptance might suggest, trust research does show that people will show confidence in those outlets that support their own views. This sort of media landscape leaves little room for broad-based, independent journalism motivated by a search for the truth (and Jay similarly wrote here about journalism pursuing “high standards of verification”). Historically, we know that the best and most respected journalism has not had revenue and audience-maximisation in mind, but has rather been driven by justice, equity, and other change-oriented motivations.
Recent research from the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri analyzes the various social media strategies that exist within news organizations to engender public trust in their journalism. The focus of much of this work is to determine what language and genres of posts build reader trust, and, conversely, what sorts of posts undermine public trust in the product.
Much of this work relates to newsrooms and journalists finding ‘common ground’ with readers, finding ways to ensure certain sections of the audience are not offended or in gross disagreement with content. Monitoring clicks and watching reactions to pitches and hard-sells is necessary activity for a news site to understand their audiences, but care needs to be taken in how we respond to the information gathered.
A study by non-profit feminist site Bitch Media about the impact of using the audience-engagement tool Hearken (and reprinted by City University New York’s “The Year of Listening” project) suggests the following: “When you’re asking the audience directly for support, there’s no more compelling argument to give than ‘we truly listen to you, and actually make the work you’re asking for.’”
There’s an issue, and perhaps a fine line, between delivering important and engaging news and simply asking readers what they want to see and providing it. This taps into concerns from media organizations looking at the membership model of operation who are a little nervous that donors and members might end up running the news agenda (a largely unrealized phenomena that Emily Goligoski has found in her research for this project) or more particularly, that larger donors and influential members might be able to impact upon the editorial.
So, suggesting that an organization will ‘listen’ and simply ‘make the work you’re asking for’ will be problematic for some. What if the members are interested in more stories about the Kardashians? What if they’d like an increase in celebrity news, or details about sporting stars’ lives? What then?
“Trust” in media does not mean “we will demonstrate to you that we listen, because we will deliver what you ask for.” Trust is (surely) about respect, recognition of expertise, belief in the mission, sharing of the vision, and a truthfulness from the publication which is achieved through transparency, accessibility, and an overriding sense of public good (selflessness) in the finished work. These are the ingredients that we can look to establish in creating media and journalism that audiences use, that they keep coming back for, and that they support in multiple ways including and beyond with cash.
For more resources on these topics, please see the Listening Post Collective, DocumentCloud, First Draft News, and the Credibility Coalition. We’re eager to know what other resources you’d suggest for this literature roundup as well. Thanks for helping us navigate this territory!
David van Zeggeren, Jessica Best, Emily Goligoski, Jay Rosen, Gonzalo del Peon, and Leon Postma contributed to this post.