Throughout the years, the media has been struggling with a challenge: building audience trust. Audience trust has evolved along with the media sphere itself, but the recent years proved to be a critical time, between the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 presidential election. Gallup published an alarming study in September 2020 that found more Americans who do not trust the media than Americans who do: 4 out of 10 people say they trust the media to be fair and accurate “a great deal” or “a fair amount” while 6 out of 10 say they don’t trust the media much or at all.
Terry Flew, professor of digital communication and culture at the University of Sydney, says trust in media has also been made more complex through the development of digital platforms where the audience members now publish as well.
“We have this duality going on around proliferation of a range of sources of information but a growing uncertainty as to the authoritativeness of those sources given the degree of distrust sometimes manipulated by vested interests, sometimes genuinely there, that exists around the truth playing of journalism,” Flew explains.
Flew participated in a study called Improving Trust in News: Audience Solutions, where he and his colleague focused on elements that build trust as well as ways journalists can improve trust in their reporting.
The study pinpoints some of the main elements that play a role in a viewer or reader’s level of trust: quality of journalism, perception of poor journalism (sensationalism), perception of independence being eroded, interference of commercial or political interests, lack of transparency, and conflict of interests.
One of the biggest findings of the study is that there is a disparity between the audience members with a low trust versus the audience members who have a high level of trust. Researchers asked participants to tick boxes indicating what can be improved to increase their trust in the media.
“People who have low trust ticked fewer boxes. There was less that you could do to rally their enthusiasm, to lift their trust in news. This led us to think: this is a new challenge for news organizations, once news consumers lose trust … they’re skeptical. It’s much harder to win their trust than to boost the trust of those whose trust they already have,” Fisher says.
So how can journalists earn the trust of their audiences?
“I think trust is a really multi-dimensional concept, it’s really hard to say it’s one thing. In the concept of journalism, I think trust is the perception of the audience of whether organizations and journalists are providing the truth and they are covering the topic in a comprehensive way to provide an in-depth discussion about it,” says Su Jung Kim, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Southern California.
Kim partnered with Jacob Nelson, assistant professor of journalism at Arizona State University, and researched interventions that can improve the audience’s trust in reporting. He found that transparency is one of the ways journalists are trying to show their audience that their reporting is done with integrity and in good faith.
“They are also making lots of attempts to do what gets called either audience engagement, engaged journalism, participatory journalism, intentionally allowing audiences into the process of making news production more collaborative between journalists and the public, the logic being that if you do those two things, audiences feel more involved, they feel better represented by the news that they end up consuming, and because they’ve seen behind the scenes, they believe that what they’re seeing is true, it’s not an attempt by a faceless journalist who they don’t know to sort of mislead them either deliberately or unintentionally,” says Nelson.
There is also a relationship between trust in news and loyalty to news: oftentimes an audience puts its trust in a particular medium and stays loyal to that particular medium, being less likely to get news from another type of medium. For instance, someone who trusts TV news more than other sources will most likely keep getting their news from TV and are less likely to switch to another media such as print or radio. Similarly, audiences seem to judge legacy media more trustworthy than new, emerging media.
There is no magic recipe to increase the trust of an audience, but there are several steps journalists can take in order to inspire confidence such as being accurate and transparent in their reporting.