Trust in news is eroding at an alarming rate. According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2020, fewer than four in ten people across 40 markets say they typically trust most news – a dip of four percentage points in the space of a year.
In response, newsrooms are trying to figure out how they can rebuild and maintain trust with their audience. At our Newsrewired conference yesterday (21 May 2021), four panellists gave a US-centric perspective on where to start.
The messenger matters
Sara Lomax-Reese is the president and CEO of WURD Radio, Pennsylvania’s only African American-owned talk radio station. She believes the creation of black-owned media outlets can help rebuild trust with underserved communities, after a long history of damage done by the mainstream press.
“Creating more sustainable, vibrant media organisations that are owned, led and serve black and brown communities will be a game-changer in our ability to disrupt these trust issues,” she explained.
Earlier this year, Lomax-Reese co-founded a new media company called URL Media – standing for ‘uplift, respect and love’ – as a network of black and brown owned media organisations.
It started with eight inaugural partners, including Lomax-Reese’s WURD Radio, and Epicenter-NYC, a weekly newsletter started by her co-founder S. Mitra Kalita geared for her neighborhood in Jackson Heights, Queens. The six other partners – Documented, Scalawag, The Haitian Times, TBN 24, ScrollStack and Palabra – serve other minority groups across the US through a mixture of formats.
URL Media will help to amplify and stimulate the revenue of these news outlets, by securing advertising, sponsors, and syndication and partnership deals.
By putting more power in the hands of diverse ownership, Lomax-Reese is aiming to create change from the inside out.
“The messenger matters,” she said. “When you don’t value the audience you serve, people are not going to support or trust you.”
Focus on visible, observable indicators of quality
The other problem of course is that trust is hard to measure. That is where the Trust in News Project hopes to shed some light.
The £3.3m Facebook-funded research project will enable the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) to dig into important questions like: “what kinds of digital news do people trust, why do they trust it, and what can publishers and platforms do to help people make decisions about what news to trust online?”
RISJ project lead and senior research fellow Benjamin Toff discussed some of the most recent findings, explaining that “trust often revolves around ill-defined impressions of brand identities and is rarely rooted in detail concerning news organisations’ reporting practices or editorial standards.”
Simply put, reasons for mistrust might not be as deep as we assume. Often, trust boils down to reputational value and basic factors like article tone, appearance, grammar and even the functionality of a website. There are definitely people with more deeply-held views, but they account for the minority.
At the same time, people largely do not understand how the news actually comes together. Therefore, they rely on the “visible and observable indicators of quality”.
“The way people think about trust in news is often down to various heuristics like familiarity with brand names, their first impressions of the source and word of mouth from other people in their communities”, said Toff.
“People aren’t differentiating sources based on journalistic practices because they don’t necessarily know that much about journalistic practices.”
Be open with your audience
Since 2014, The Trust Project, through working with roughly 100 news organisation, has drafted eight Trust Indicators which news outlets can display on their websites to tell audiences why they can be trusted.
“They talk about who and what the news organisation is, about the journalist and information about how the story was built,” explains Sally Lehrman founder of The Trust Project.
“Where the eight pieces come together is: it’s about building a relationship. Trust is about a relationship.”
What is clear from the project’s work is that anxiety and fear are reasons for mistrust too. People are fearful of being manipulated by the news, being an inadvertent part of the spread of misinformation and are generally distressed by news coverage. News organisations must take steps to alleviate those concerns.
That is where the trust indicators offer some guidance. There are currently around 250 news outlets showing the trust indicators on their websites and help to build relationships by:
- Publicly stating who funds their organisation
- Publishing details about the journalists who work for them
- Making source material easily accessible to audiences for verification purposes
- Outlining the process and motivation behind pursuing a certain story
- Cleary labelling whether certain content is news, opinion or analysis
- Encouraging local journalists to report on local issues on which they have greater expertise
- Bringing more diverse voices to the newsroom
- Engaging the public in setting coverage priorities
Offer a counter-narrative
But there is also work to be done on an individual level. Joy Mayer is the director of Trusting News, a project that trains journalists in transparency and engagement strategies.
“Journalists too often feel like they deserve automatic trust,” she said, explaining that journalists must have the “humility” to earn trust.
Recent research in the US found that only 21 per cent of people had ever spoken to a journalist – this number is much lower for ethnic minorities.
“We’re an unfamiliar breed,” Mayer continues. It is therefore vital that journalists listen to their audiences’ concerns, and go out of their way to address them.
“What are the comments you get? Are people mad about your paywall? Are they accusing you of being unfair? Do they question your integrity? Do they know why you cover certain stories?” she asks.
“All of these are things they would not automatically know unless you talk about them.”
Step one is to listen, but step two is to offer a counter-narrative: a way to address their concerns head-on.
“If people say news should be free, are you on the record explaining where your money comes from? Are you there in the comments saying you have staff to pay and that you’re a local business who rely on community support?”
Only by engaging with sceptical audiences and providing answers to these tough questions can media organisations stop declining levels of trust.