Trust in News Project
Why is trust in news declining in many countries? And what can be done about?
Since 2020, I have led a collaborative research project with a team at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism examining what news sources people trust, why people invest their trust in them, and what publishers and platforms can do to help people make decisions about what news to trust online. We focus specifically on the media environments in Brazil, India, the UK, and the US.
The project is funded by a £3.3m donation ($4m) from the Facebook Journalism Project, announced in early 2020.
This report summarises some of what is known and unknown about trust in news, what is contributing to changing attitudes about news worldwide, and how media organisations are responding to increased digital competition. The report combines an extensive review of existing research on the subject along with findings from 82 in-depth interviews with journalists and other practitioners across Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States – four countries with varying media and political systems. The report argues that there is no single ‘trust in news’ problem but rather multiple challenges involving both the supply of news and the public’s demand for information. Empirical evidence about what works, with whom, and under what circumstances, remains lacking, especially around the role played by platform companies. The report emphasises the need to grapple with trade-offs. Some efforts to regain or retain trust in accurate and reliable news are likely to alienate some audiences over others.
Our second report, published April 22, 2021, focused on what “trust in news” means to news audiences, drawing on qualitative data.
Media Coverage: Nieman Journalism Lab, Poynter.org, Journalism.co.uk, European Federation of Journalists
This report details findings from an inductive, qualitative study of news audiences across four countries, examining varying ways people define the construct of trust in news, how they differentiate between sources, and the role played by digital platforms in how news outlets get evaluated in daily life. Drawing on both focus group discussions and one-on-one in-depth interviews with 132 individuals in Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the report argues that many people focus surprisingly little on the specific journalistic practices employed by news organisations when assessing trustworthiness. Instead, many news consumers fall back on shortcuts involving impressions of brands’ reputations and stylistic differences in the way news gets presented. For those lacking strong trusting relationships to particular news outlets, the experience of navigating information online often reinforced tendencies toward generalised scepticism toward all news—making it that much more challenging for news organizations to build trust with digital audiences.
Our third report, published September 9, 2021, focused on understanding gaps in trust in news using survey data, examining what separates people who trust a below average number of news brands from other segments of the public.
This report details findings from an original survey of news audiences in Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It examines attitudes towards media in each country, ideas about how journalists conduct themselves, and views about which sources of information can be trusted online and offline. The report focuses especially on people with minimal trust and finds some patterns across countries: the least trusting are not necessarily the most vocal critics who are often selectively trusting towards particular providers. Instead, the untrusting tend to be the least knowledgeable about journalism, most disengaged from how it is practised, and least interested in the editorial choices publishers 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. Earning their trust calls for a different approach than that required for other segments of the public.
Our fourth report, published December 2, 2021, assessed the current climate for journalism in the four countries and the constraints and strategies news organizations are undertaking to build trust with specific audiences in their countries. It was based on a series of roundtable discussions we convened in October with journalists and senior managers.
This report summarises major challenges news organizations face around building and sustaining trust with the public, focusing on four countries with varying media and political systems (Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The analysis draws on nine roundtable conversations held virtually in 2021 with 54 senior newsroom leaders and argues that one of the key questions news outlets face is around whether to build trust broadly with the public or instead to focus on deepening trust with audiences already predisposed to trust them. News organisations evaluated this question differently depending on their mission and business models, with many viewing trust as a means to an end including membership or subscription revenue. While this makes sense for individual outlets given the pressures and incentives they face, the report highlights the potential problem it poses for journalism generally as those who are most disengaged from news get excluded from trust-building initiatives.
Our fifth report, published April 4, 2022, examined how untrusting audiences navigate information on digital platforms. It was based on 100 qualitative interviews conducted over video conference in which participants described what they saw in their Facebook feeds, WhatsApp groups, and Google search results.
This report examines how audiences lacking trust in most news organisations make sense of news they encounter while navigating platforms, specifically Facebook, Google, and WhatsApp. Based on interviews with 100 people in Brazil, India, United Kingdom, and United States, we find that when such audiences encounter news on platforms, which is rarely, they tend to use a variety of mental shortcuts to determine what they can trust. Specifically, we focus on six types: (1) pre-existing ideas about news in general or specific brands, (2) social cues from family and friends, (3) the tone and wording of headlines, (4) the use of visuals, (5) the presence of advertising, and (6) platform-specific cues. While some of these cues may be beyond the scope of what news organisations have influence over – putting the onus on platforms – others are within the scope of publishers’ control but require them to be more attuned to how their content is exhibited in these spaces.
Our sixth report, published September 22, 2022, examined gaps in trust in news found on digital platforms like Facebook, Google, YouTube, and WhatsApp compared to trust in news in general. It was based on orginal survey data collected across the four countries that are the focus of the project.
In this report, we examine the relationship between trust in news and how people think about news on digital platforms, drawing on an original survey collected in the summer of 2022 in Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. We find a ‘trust gap’ between how much people in all four countries trust information in the news media in general and news found on platforms, which they are more sceptical toward. At the same time, people have mainly positive feelings toward the platforms themselves. These differences are explained by reasons people express to use platforms, which are often about solving daily tasks or connecting with others, and less about news and information. Our results indicate that the challenge for news organisations may be less about an erosion of trust due to their being seen on platforms and more about being seen at all in these spaces.
Our seventh report, published April 18, 2023, considered the perspectives of marginalized and historically underserved audiences in the four countries. It was based on a series of targeted focus groups.
This report draws on 41 focus groups with marginalised and/or underserved audiences in Brazil, India, the UK, and the US to examine how differences along lines of race, caste, religion, class, and place affect perceptions of trustworthy journalism. We highlight commonalities among participants rooted in distinct experiences, needs, and expectations that lead them to perceive news as representing their communities negatively, unfairly, stereotypically, or in divisive or altogether absent ways entirely. In some countries, grievances around deficient or harmful coverage were often intertwined with perceptions of the news media as extensions of broader power structures and impressions of journalists as privileged and out of touch. Finally, we show that many saw news media as intentionally mistreating people from disadvantaged communities while consistently catering to other more powerful audiences, and we summarise what participants recommended as possible solutions for building or restoring their trust