Reuters Institute & University of Oxford
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.
Surveys were designed to capture a mix of attitudes about journalism as it is practised in each of the four countries, along with underlying characteristics about individual respondents, including their demographics, their political views, how knowledgeable they are about news, and what they think about journalism’s role in society. We sought to balance specificity with breadth by combining some questions about individual news brands and platforms with other questions about news more generally. Survey questionnaires took approximately 12–15 minutes online; in Brazil, several questions were omitted because the questionnaire took longer to complete over the phone.
Summary of key findings
This report contains a range of findings about news audiences in each of the four countries, focusing on audiences overall as well as different segments of the public categorised according to their degree of trust towards news brands in their country. We summarise several of the key results of our analysis here:
- People are more trusting of news they themselves use, including on social media, but less trusting of news they don’t use, especially news found on digital platforms. Relatively high percentages overall say they ‘somewhat’ trust information reported in the news media generally; however, levels of trust are much lower for specific news brands and news found on social media. That trust gap between online and offline news, however, is largely driven by low trust among people who do not use news on these platforms.
- Many hold highly negative views about basic journalistic practices. Large minorities in all four countries have very negative or cynical views about how they think journalists do their jobs, including allowing personal opinions to influence coverage, accepting undisclosed payment from sources, or deliberately seeking to manipulate the public. Remarkably, these views vary only somewhat between those who otherwise exhibit low and high trust in news. Even the generally trusting often have what journalists may regard as a pretty dim view of basic journalistic practices.
- The least trusting towards news tend to be older, less educated, less interested in politics, and less connected to urban centres. Although there were some differences by country with respect to which groups tended to be more or less trusting towards news brands generally, we also find key similarities across countries in which groups typically lack trust towards individual news brands. In all four countries, we find wide disparities between the generally trusting and untrusting in whether they think news organisations understand people like them or genuinely want to hear from the public.
- The least trusting pay less attention to and are more indifferent towards specific characteristics about how journalism is practised. We find that factors involving editorial practices, including transparency about how news is produced and who reports it, were deemed less important to people who were generally untrusting towards news. People who were most trusting towards news were much more likely to say these characteristics were important when they made decisions about what news sources to use.
- Experience interacting with journalists is rare and familiarity with basic concepts concerning how news works is often low. Most said they had not interacted with journalists and few said they were especially familiar with basic terms and concepts in journalism, including the difference between an editorial and a news story, or between a news story and a press release. The least trusting were also the least likely to have experience contacting or conversing with journalists or knowledge about journalistic terminology.
- Gaps in trust in news align with deficits in social and interpersonal trust as well as dissatisfaction with democracy. We find a strong correlation between levels of trust in news, the degree to which people are bonded to other individuals and specific groups in society, and how satisfied people are about the way democracy is working. These results point to the extent to which trusting attitudes towards news are in part driven by factors external to the news itself. Our data also show that low trust in news may have implications for how people think about the media environment more widely: the generally untrusting are somewhat less supportive of free expression and somewhat more in favour of government censorship compared to other respondents.
Cover Photo Credit: AAG