Declining trust forces publishers to claim (or disclaim) values

“Just as almost all sizeable publishers today have audience teams, almost all will have trust teams and trust dashboards within five years.”

There is a well-known saying about trust: Trust comes on foot, but leaves on horseback. Unfortunately, 2020 proved to be another year of declining trust in media.

Many publishers’ product and technology teams have spent time over the past two years working to understand bias in emerging machine learning algorithms. But 2021 will see those teams tackling a far more difficult problem: perceived bias in the human journalism algorithm. And the long march to win back trust will begin.

This is a topic that many industries are grappling with, not just journalism. Sectors from e-commerce to travel to SaaS are all wrestling with trust. Customers today want to understand what brands stand for — and want evidence that their products adhere to their values.

The challenge facing publishers is slightly different. In other industries, brands have stated aims and values and the key issue is how their products live up to these principles. News publishers don’t always have stated values, and their absence — along with an internal lack of focus on how their product is consumed as a whole — leaves users to interpret the media organizations’ values (and any bias) for themselves.

The use of audience data and analytics have come a long way in news organizations. But all the individual data points — each pageview, each share, each engagement — often fail to capture the broader (and harder) topic of how the editorial proposition is consumed and viewed as a whole, and how this is shifting in real-time.

Publishers must face that many users believe there’s been a blurring of fact and opinion. Whether that’s true or not, that is the perception. And we’ve reached a tipping point where too many news consumers are now uncomfortable. This is not a sudden trend. It’s happened over many years, likely accelerated by the clickworthy nature of opinion articles that have deluged social media far more widely than traditional news articles.

News publishers ignore this decline in trust at their peril. The idea that a news publisher should be seen as unbiased and neutral automatically is no longer the case. We have reached a tipping point where the first news organizations will begin to tackle the decline in trust overtly.

In the coming year or two, we’ll see three types of publishers emerge:

  1. Those with a stated viewpoint through which all is reported. This has already happened in the eyes of the users. News publishers can either embrace this stance or actively work to move away from it.
  2. Those who encourage a range of opinions but curate them carefully to foster debate and advance understanding. Some organizations already pull this off, but they do need to track users’ perceptions, as they can shift quickly without editorial being aware.
  3. Those who state loudly that they report only facts and reject option. In the U.K., this has been the position of the mighty BBC — but even that’s now questioned. The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report this year revealed distrust of public service media is growing and is often higher than for many other news brands.

Falling trust in the BBC means there’s a huge opportunity in this third segment for news publishers. Especially as recent reports clearly show a hunger for unbiased or neutral news sources. But it will require a news organization to publicly claim a neutral position and then demonstrate how its actions live up to its words.

The winners will be publishers that embrace product and tech thinking to advance understanding of trust at pace. So, in 2021, a handful of publishers will likely look at their roadmap and dedicate a certain percentage of tech and product team resources to build, test, and learn about trust: How it is won, lost, and perceived.

This will not be a one-off project but instead the creation of a permanent product and tech Trust teams. Just as almost all sizeable publishers today have audience teams, almost all will have trust teams and trust dashboards within five years.

2021 will be about discovery around trust. But it’s important to recognize this is not a technology or product problem. It’s a huge editorial challenge, but one where tech and product can help build understanding.

It will demand new levels of collaboration between editorial and tech, from ideation to execution. Great delivery and discovery go hand-in-hand. It should be the same team, working and learning on the same ideas and concepts. It’s almost impossible to achieve fantastic success with an idea when it’s handed off for execution to another team with little understanding of the users, the prioritized needs, and the lessons from experiments and failures along the way. It’s likely there will be a first-mover advantage to the publisher that cracks this first.

Tanya Cordrey is former chief digital officer of Guardian News & Media and partner at tech and product consultancy AKF Partners.

There is a well-known saying about trust: Trust comes on foot, but leaves on horseback. Unfortunately, 2020 proved to be another year of declining trust in media.

Many publishers’ product and technology teams have spent time over the past two years working to understand bias in emerging machine learning algorithms. But 2021 will see those teams tackling a far more difficult problem: perceived bias in the human journalism algorithm. And the long march to win back trust will begin.

This is a topic that many industries are grappling with, not just journalism. Sectors from e-commerce to travel to SaaS are all wrestling with trust. Customers today want to understand what brands stand for — and want evidence that their products adhere to their values.

The challenge facing publishers is slightly different. In other industries, brands have stated aims and values and the key issue is how their products live up to these principles. News publishers don’t always have stated values, and their absence — along with an internal lack of focus on how their product is consumed as a whole — leaves users to interpret the media organizations’ values (and any bias) for themselves.

The use of audience data and analytics have come a long way in news organizations. But all the individual data points — each pageview, each share, each engagement — often fail to capture the broader (and harder) topic of how the editorial proposition is consumed and viewed as a whole, and how this is shifting in real-time.

Publishers must face that many users believe there’s been a blurring of fact and opinion. Whether that’s true or not, that is the perception. And we’ve reached a tipping point where too many news consumers are now uncomfortable. This is not a sudden trend. It’s happened over many years, likely accelerated by the clickworthy nature of opinion articles that have deluged social media far more widely than traditional news articles.

News publishers ignore this decline in trust at their peril. The idea that a news publisher should be seen as unbiased and neutral automatically is no longer the case. We have reached a tipping point where the first news organizations will begin to tackle the decline in trust overtly.

In the coming year or two, we’ll see three types of publishers emerge:

  1. Those with a stated viewpoint through which all is reported. This has already happened in the eyes of the users. News publishers can either embrace this stance or actively work to move away from it.
  2. Those who encourage a range of opinions but curate them carefully to foster debate and advance understanding. Some organizations already pull this off, but they do need to track users’ perceptions, as they can shift quickly without editorial being aware.
  3. Those who state loudly that they report only facts and reject option. In the U.K., this has been the position of the mighty BBC — but even that’s now questioned. The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report this year revealed distrust of public service media is growing and is often higher than for many other news brands.

Falling trust in the BBC means there’s a huge opportunity in this third segment for news publishers. Especially as recent reports clearly show a hunger for unbiased or neutral news sources. But it will require a news organization to publicly claim a neutral position and then demonstrate how its actions live up to its words.

The winners will be publishers that embrace product and tech thinking to advance understanding of trust at pace. So, in 2021, a handful of publishers will likely look at their roadmap and dedicate a certain percentage of tech and product team resources to build, test, and learn about trust: How it is won, lost, and perceived.

This will not be a one-off project but instead the creation of a permanent product and tech Trust teams. Just as almost all sizeable publishers today have audience teams, almost all will have trust teams and trust dashboards within five years.

2021 will be about discovery around trust. But it’s important to recognize this is not a technology or product problem. It’s a huge editorial challenge, but one where tech and product can help build understanding.

It will demand new levels of collaboration between editorial and tech, from ideation to execution. Great delivery and discovery go hand-in-hand. It should be the same team, working and learning on the same ideas and concepts. It’s almost impossible to achieve fantastic success with an idea when it’s handed off for execution to another team with little understanding of the users, the prioritized needs, and the lessons from experiments and failures along the way. It’s likely there will be a first-mover advantage to the publisher that cracks this first.

Tanya Cordrey is former chief digital officer of Guardian News & Media and partner at tech and product consultancy AKF Partners.

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