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Beset on all sides, news publishers are hang-gliding over the hell of a public trust crisis

In the middle of a monetisation crisis, publishers are rediscovering that trust is a catalyst for payment — but the enemies of the free press are marshalling against them.

‘Trust’ is a woolly term. It has any number of definitions when it comes to the media, from affinity with a news brand that reflects an audience’s prejudices, to the safety net that comes from believing that a paper’s reportage is accurate, to the surety that comes from a long and storied history.

Regardless, newspapers and broadcasters have always talked a big game when it comes to their audiences’ trust. Their business model relies on the public trusting them, after all, nobody would choose to consume news from a source they didn’t believe.

Unfortunately the media industry has been staring down a widespread lack of trust, in what Poynter describes as “decades of declining trust in the press”. In the United States, trust in the media peaked in the mid-1970s and has been tailing off since, while in the UK a summer study by the Pew Research Centre found that only 48 percent of the public believe the media is doing a good job getting its facts straight. Over the past few years that lack of trust has been exploited by politicians from across the political spectrum, resulting in a more acute trust crisis.

Despite that, 2018 saw the beginning of some green shoots in public trust in the media, suggesting that the volatility of the past years has thawed audiences’ mistrust, and that there is a way for the media to claw back its place as an effective fourth estate.

What happened in 2018

As the year opened, figures from the Edelman Trust Barometer demonstrated that trust in the media in general was flat at 32%, and also demonstrated that a significant proportion of the public was flat-out seeking to avoid the news altogether. The survey demonstrated that fully a third of those news-avoiders do so because of a perception that the media in general is too biased and, scarily, that over a quarter do so because they believe the news agenda to be controlled by those with ‘hidden agendas’.

Those perceptions are due in no small part to the machinations of the powerful, who would prefer little oversight of their activities. In the US, the Republican Party and Trump frequently attack the media for its perceived bias against them, while in the UK politicians on both sides of the spectrum have denigrated the press using the term ‘fake news’, which here means ‘news that they don’t like’. It is no coincidence that the utter nadir of US public trust in the media was in 2017, in which a Gallup poll found that only 32% had a positive reaction to the question ‘in general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media such as newspapers, TV and radio when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly?’ This was the year in which Trump’s anti-media efforts came home to roost.

There was no better demonstration of the ongoing effects of those efforts in 2018 than an incident during Trump’s July visit to the UK. In response to a question from a Sun journalist regarding a taped interview in which Trump had criticised UK prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit trade deal that Trump had subsequently described (surprise surprise) as “fake news”, May advised the president “Don’t worry, it’s only the press”. The pair were reaping the benefits of the public lack of trust in the media, which they had sown.

Additionally, fringe and extremist sites have benefited from and exploited that lack of trust by offering ‘alternative’ voices that were enabled by social networks, which until very recently fiercely denied any editorial responsibility. In fact, it was only in September that Twitter permanently banned the alt-right news site Infowars and its associated accounts.

(Incidentally, a plot point in the third season of Netflix’s Daredevil, released in October 2018, has supervillain the Kingpin make a speech vilifying the press for ‘silencing’ him for daring to speak ‘truth’ to power, in a way that is reminiscent of both the fringe site’s appeal to paranoia and Trump’s demonisation of the press.)

However, as 2018 progressed there were signs that public trust in the media is rebounding — ever so slightly. While public trust in local media has remained consistently high compared to national titles, numerous pieces of research demonstrated it is growing yet again. A survey published by Yougov in March found that 74 percent of British people trust the news in their local titles (print and digital), while an August release from the Poynter Media Trust Survey found 73% of Americans have confidence in local newspapers.

Even more encouragingly, continued strong growth in subscriptions and memberships at quality newspapers suggest that the broadsheets’ rhetoric that people will pay to sustain news outlets they trust is accurate. To return to that Edelman Trust Barometer from January, while trust in media overall was flat, the better news was that 61% of UK respondents said they trusted traditional media (broadcasters and publishers) — the highest level since 2012.

Where are we now?

It would be naive to argue that the trend back towards public trust in the media is inexorable.

The perception that a subset of the media peddles ‘fake news’ is now ingrained in the public consciousness, reinforced by the coverage of the same politicians who espouse that view. Even with the recommendations from both the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in the summer and the UK government in October that journalists and politicians stop using the unhelpful term ‘fake news’, it could be too little too late. Newspapers gave the term legitimacy by covering (and frequently using) it.

Happily, it seems like 2018 was the year in which we saw the trend to news consumption on social networks — which are frequently unvetted and unverified — halt. This year’s edition of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that the use of social networks for news discovery was down six percentage points in the United States, (and also down in the UK and France), and that fewer than a quarter of those surveyed said that they trust the news they find there.

And while it’s incredibly hard to measure ‘trust’, a few proxy measurements like raw subscription and membership numbers suggest that the public will indeed pay to support the newspapers towards which they have an affinity. At the time of the publication of the Digital News Report, 16% of the US population paid for online news, and in October the Guardian revealed it had over 900,000 paying members (both one-off and recurring).

And, most encouragingly of all, some news publishers are making transparency — and the trust that results — a central tenet of their subscription marketing.

What can we expect in the future?

Find out what we can expect the relationship between public trust and publishing to look like in the future by reading the full chapter in our report, Media Moments 2018. Download it here.

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