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Dec. 3, 2020, 2:40 p.m.
Audience & Social

Here are four things we still don’t know about trust in news

Are platforms damaging publishers’ brands? And how much is too much transparency?

The Reuters Institute for Journalism at the University of Oxford interviewed 82 journalists from the most prominent news outlets in Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States for its first report in the Trust in News Project, a three-year effort to better understand what causes and undermines trust in news organizations.

The report, authored by Benjamin Toff, Sumitra Badrinathan, Camila Mont’Alverne, Amy Ross Arguedas, Richard Fletcher, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, sets the groundwork for the rest of the project and is divided into two sections: what the researchers think they know about trust and distrust, and what they want to find out.

The first section discusses the definition of trust as a relationship between the outlet and the news consumer that’s built over time, not just the belief or willingness to believe in a particular piece of content. Distrust works the same way in that trust is eroded over time through continuously poor coverage or inaccuracies. At the same time, sometimes distrust has little to do with the work of the newsroom and can be the result of political polarization. And that’s more difficult to solve for with audience engagement and listening strategies.

“We maintain there is no single ‘trust in news’ problem, but rather multiple challenges involving both the supply of news — including persistent problems in the ways diverse publics have been covered — and changing expectations in what audiences demand from increasingly complex contemporary media environments,” the report’s authors write. “We also want to stress that any attempt to address trust in news needs to recognize that while trust is important and can empower members of the public, it is also dangerous for them, because not everyone and everything seeking their trust is equally trustworthy.”

The second section, titled “What do we want to know?”, breaks down the questions that current research has generated so far, and what we’ll be most interested in learning about in the coming months.

To what extent are platforms damaging to news organizations’ brand identities?: While social media platforms do offer news outlets an opportunity to build trust with their audiences using different engagement strategies, some publishers feel beholden and “held captive” by platform and search algorithms. They also recognized that they also have to compete with “outside influencers” (celebrities, politicians, bots, etc) that spread misinformation.

While some spoke approvingly about how changes in algorithms have boosted publishers who post original content, without clear labels “the average audience would have no clue,” said Yara Silva, group head of social media for Reach Plc’s national publications in the UK (including the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express, and the Daily Star). In fact, studies have shown that many users do not recall the source of stories they click on.

Which audience engagement strategies build trust? Which may undermine it?: While some interviewees felt that intuition-based approaches (like investing in the actual journalism) is the direction they should go in, others acknowledged that journalism itself, no matter how accurate, isn’t enough to change the minds of people who are deeply distrustful.

Another challenge is that direct engagement efforts require time and resources, both of which are scarce. To that extent, pleasing all audiences is impossible and newsrooms are facing a reckoning with old school notions of objectivity and how long remaining “non-partisan” will be sustainable.

In environments where distrust runs deep, it is not clear whether costly enterprise reporting or civically oriented journalism will be rewarded. Fábio Gusmão, editor of special projects for Extra and O Globo (Brazil), underscored these uncertainties, “We are even delivering fact-checking for society and, even so, people say, ‘No, that’s all fake news.'”

How much is too much transparency? What types of transparency matter most? News outlets have been opting to make their journalists accessible, portraying them as members of their communities — but there’s little evidence that shows that actually works to build trust over time. At the same time, some are concerned about the downsides of transparency; too much might bore the consumer and could be dangerous for journalists working in hostile, polarized environments.

In 2019, the Society of Professional Journalists conducted “The Casper Project,” a series of panels and workshops over six months in Casper, Wyoming, a place with some of the lowest levels of trust in news in the US (see Hicks 2019). National and local journalists connected with community members and discussed newsgathering and reporting practices. But in the end, no significant changes were found in participants’ news habits or views about the press.

Transparency around journalistic practice also contains inherent risks. The Guardian’s media editor, Jim Waterson, said he alternates between sometimes feeling that ‘openness and honesty’ is ‘a good idea’ and wondering if “showing how the sausage is made in journalism is a very bad idea for trust, because no one wants to see how sausages are made.”

“If you believed what the public says they want, we’d all just be reading our news in the form of a monthly magazine filled with 4,000-word articles. That’s bollocks.”

We know even less about how audiences think about such matters in places like India and Brazil. Just as the safety of journalists and their sources may prompt news organizations to withhold information at times, so the benefits of some forms of transparency may be outweighed by their costs — strengthening trust for some but serving as ammunition for others.

Where do preconceptions about news come from and how can they be changed?:The narratives that people— both journalists themselves and news consumers— believe about news are deeply seated in identity, politics, and lived experiences, which news organizations can’t change on their own. The report suggests that because so many news organizations are vying for this trust, there might be room for collaborative solutions, but ultimately, newsrooms are trying to stay relevant with their audiences.

Read the full report here.

Photo by Julia Thomas used under a Creative Commons license.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Dec. 3, 2020, 2:40 p.m.
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