Overcoming indifference: what attitudes towards news tell us about building trust

2021-09-22 12:03


Executive summary and key findings 

In recent decades, trust in news has declined in many parts of the world (Fletcher 2020). While the coronavirus crisis has reminded some of the value of independent journalism, boosting trust in some places (Newman et al. 2021), many continue to regard news with considerable scepticism. The media are at the centre of often intense public arguments over how societies generally – and news specifically – deal with important and sometimes polarising issues including the pandemic but also more broadly the climate emergency, populist politicians, racial injustice, other social inequalities, and much more. One prominent feature of these debates is often outright hostile attacks on news media and individual journalists by vocal and visible critics who actively express their distrust and disdain for the media and its many shortcomings, both real and perceived, especially on social media.

To be fair, news media are not alone in facing often dwindling public trust. Trust in many other institutions, including both national and local governments, has also declined in some cases, as has interpersonal trust. However, social scientists have long stressed that, despite frequent and sweeping claims of a ‘crisis of trust’, there is no evidence for a consistent, across-the-board decline in public trust in every country, every institution, or every news organisation (Norris 2011, Newman et al. 2021). These wider developments and pronounced country-to-country differences are important for trust in news, too, because attitudes towards news media are difficult to disentangle from other forms of trust towards other institutions (Hanitzsch et al. 2018).

Trust also matters for democracy. When the public place their trust in those who are in fact trustworthy, it can be profoundly enabling. But its absence can be equally debilitating, and, when trust is misplaced, it can lead us astray. Trust in news specifically matters for journalists who want people to rely on their reporting, for news media who depend on people paying attention to (and paying for) the news they produce, and for each of us as citizens. We all need trustworthy sources of information to understand and navigate our worlds and consider perspectives outside of our own narrow personal experiences.

The impact of the digital media environment on trust

Understanding trust in news and how news media may be able to build trust is especially important in an increasingly digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment where more and more people rely on intermediaries, including search engines, social media, and messaging applications, to access and discover news. As more people spend more of their time using platforms – which often provide limited context on the sources of information displayed and where many do not recall the brands behind stories they have read (Kalogeropoulos et al. 2019) – there are considerable concerns about how such changing audience behaviours will impact attitudes towards news outlets that depend on trusting relationships with audiences.

The changing context around how people access and use news and information risks imparting trust where it is not deserved (Gursky and Woolley 2021), enabling the widespread dissemination of problematic information. The trust gap between news in general and news accessed via platforms also risks diminishing trustworthy brands’ standing ‘by association’, as people come across news in environments that also offer many other kinds of information, including sometimes misinformation or outright disinformation. Surveys document that majorities in many countries are concerned about whether online news is real or fake. Large numbers of people are worried about false or misleading information disseminated via Facebook or messaging applications such as WhatsApp, but also, to a lesser extent, via Google, YouTube, or less widely used social media such as Twitter (Newman et al. 2021).

In this report, part of a larger RISJ project focused on trust, we use original survey data from four countries – Brazil, India, the UK, and the US – to develop a more detailed understanding of how different segments of the public hold varying degrees of trust in news. We do so in order to help those interested in building trust in news better understand the people they are trying to reach.

We examine three groups we call the ‘generally untrusting’, the ‘selectively trusting’, and the ‘generally trusting’, defined on the basis of the relative number of news brands respondents say they trust ‘somewhat’ or ‘completely’. We find consistent gaps between groups not only in their attitudes towards news itself, but also in their views towards other institutions in society more broadly. Perhaps most importantly, across all four countries covered, we find that those who generally lack trust in news are not necessarily the most vocal and angry about news coverage (who are, on closer examination, often people who are selectively trusting towards certain news providers). Instead, the generally untrusting tend to be the least knowledgeable about journalism, the most disengaged from how it is practised, and the least interested in the editorial decisions and choices publishers and editors make daily when producing the news.

The primary challenge news media and journalists face from this part of the public is not hostility, but indifference. Reaching them, demonstrating the value journalism can hold for them, and earning their trust will call for a different set of responses than those required for engaging with more vocal and visible critics or for incrementally increasing trust among the already trusting parts of the public.


The RISJ’s larger Trust in News Project seeks to understand the drivers of trust in news, the factors responsible for its apparent decline in many countries in recent years, the differences in how this plays out in different places around the world, and what might be done about it. This report builds on two previous reports we have published: one based on interviews we conducted with senior managers and journalists at news organisations worldwide (Toff et al. 2020) and one based on qualitative conversations we held with cross-sections of news audiences (Toff et al. 2021), which focused on how media users define trust and think about the news they engage with. While we found some overlap between both practitioners and audiences in terms of the concerns they expressed about the contemporary digital news media landscape, especially on social media, we also found some key differences. Audiences were far less versed in the professional practices that underlie differences between news brands and more likely to base assessments about trustworthiness on familiarity and impressions about brand reputation. Some revealed in focus groups and interviews that they sometimes relied on cues tied to how news was presented – including its visual qualities, use of language, and other easily observable indicators of difference – as shortcuts for assessing whether a source was deserving of their trust.

These findings informed our approach in this report, as did years of social science research stressing how trust in news is tied to other forms of institutional and interpersonal trust. We designed an original survey questionnaire and fielded it in May and June 2021 in four countries spanning the Global North (the UK and the US) and the Global South (Brazil and India). While each of these large, diverse countries contains its own unique political, cultural, and societal divides, they are all grappling with the role played by digital media platforms in how their citizens stay informed.