Guest Columns
5 mins read

Finding a better way forward for truth and trust in journalism

Journalism is under tighter scrutiny than ever. After a year where fast-changing global events drove huge demand for digital media, this development isn’t just natural; it’s necessary.

COVID-19 has underscored the importance of providing trustworthy content, with audiences flocking to premium publisher environments. Significant cultural shifts and the intensified debate around fact or fake have also stressed the need for greater focus on supporting and directing ad spend to ethical publishers. But despite closer inspection on multiple fronts — from brands, agencies, stakeholders and audiences — the industry still faces tough challenges with ensuring true stories are heard and earning confidence.

As online fragmentation creates an overwhelming chorus of voices, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for readers to distinguish credible sources. Clearly, finding a better way forward is essential; and that’s what the Association for Online Publishing (AOP) Crunch 4:1 webinar – moderated by Ali Hanan, Founder and CEO at Creative Equals – aimed to achieve.

Gathering leading editorial figures, academics and analysts – including Anna-Sophie Harling, Managing Director Europe and Executive VP Partnerships, NewsGuard; Riyad Emeran, Head of Content Strategy, Dennis Publishing; and Kemi Alemoru, Features Editor, Gal-Dem.com – the event explored why audience expectations are changing, what quality journalism means, and how we can build a healthier media environment. Here are the key takeaways for cultivating a future founded on truth and trust:

What’s eroding consumer trust?

The last few years have brought an increasing decline of media trust, especially in the news. According to Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, faith has fallen from 51% in 2015 to just 28% in 2020, with this drop largely the result of two core factors: evolving consumer attitudes and habits. A series of polarising situations have seen passions run high and deeper divisions drawn, leading to scepticism of journalism that individuals don’t believe represents their viewpoint.

These issues aren’t helped by the growth of social media usage. Citing findings that almost one in three (26%) consumers discover news via social, Newman argues stories selected by algorithms are amplifying mistrust  — a conclusion shared by Anna-Sophie Harling, European Managing Director and Vice President of Partnerships at NewsGuard. For Harling, automatic newsfeed curation now means “each person is presented with their own version of reality”, frequently including content reflective of existing opinion and a high volume of misleading or fake news, as prioritisation of engagement means “click-bait” style articles win out.

The most obvious solution will be regulation and the UK is already leading the charge in holding social platforms to greater account. Equally, however, there is also a need for the industry to understand and accommodate what today’s audiences see on digital media.

Accepting the nuanced nature of quality 

Essential to winning back audience trust is recognising that perceptions of truth are often highly varied. As noted by Riyad Emeran, Head of Content Strategy at Dennis Publishing, journalism follows a rigid definition of truthful and high-quality content — well-written researched, corroborated and fact-checked — but audience concepts are more nuanced. With reader interpretations depending on unique beliefs, their verdict on quality is subjective.

In the pandemic climate, differing takes on stories are only being heightened by the influx of scientific news which will impact audience trust. Rebecca Coombes, Head of Journalism at BMJ, highlights that COVID-19 is fuelling high confusion at vast scale. Not only is the sharp rise in research production impacting accuracy for medical journals, but more mainstream outlets are also seeking to cater for current audience needs by reporting on findings without quality control processes in place such as peer reviews, which could result in false or misleading information. While medical information is vital during the pandemic, journalists must ensure that research has been through the same rigorous controls that were in place before COVID-19, otherwise the public are left with facts that shift as medical evidence changes and uncertainty about who is telling the truth.

But leaders do think there is a simple answer to this problem: letting audiences define quality for themselves. By laying out clear details about media sources and credibility, publishers can empower readers to make informed decisions about truthfulness. Indeed, this theory is the core basis of NewGuard’s offering, which applies third-party labelling that acts as an independent “nutrition label” for web content, including social. Similarly, the BMJ has managed ever-changing Coronavirus evidence by openly stating where there is room for debate and whether content is peer reviewed, or what Coombes describes as “showing its workings”.

Making space for diverse voices

As well as helping readers tell fact from fiction, addressing disconnection will mean tackling another key issue: underrepresentation. Kemi Alemoru, Culture Editor at gal-dem.com, points out media diversity is a well-known problem — citing studies showing just 0.2% of journalists are Black and 0.4% are Muslim — but it’s one the industry must work harder to resolve. When it comes to trust, this need is particularly great as the dominance of certain voices means many stories don’t resonate with a broad range of audiences.  

Even before the escalation of fake news, skewed narratives didn’t represent the truth lived by multiple minorities, with headlines around issues such as immigration driving marginalisation. By providing a platform for women and non-binary people of colour, gal-dem.com has created more space for broader voices to break through. But Alemoru feels this isn’t enough to level the playing field. The reality is that specialist journalists still spend much of their time delving beneath the sub-terrain layers of bigger stories, indicating major titles simply aren’t covering the whole story.

As Emeran agrees, what’s required is further industry-wide effort to give representation for different communities. Although specialist publications are critical, we must strive for a world where dedicated and major titles both deliver diverse perspectives.

Like any complex challenge, there isn’t one quick and easy fix. Improving trust and truth is going to call for higher transparency and accountability at multiple levels.

Firstly, journalism needs to take an honest look at its flaws and take positive learnings from past mistakes; especially around previous failures to allow for audience nuance and support for diverse voices. It’s not always easy to walk the fine line between producing content that’s generally popular and upholding responsible standards but aiming for an even balance is paramount; and doing so starts with acknowledging the issues in our own bubbles.

Secondly, publications must embrace their capacity to become change makers. Raising the bar on internal practices can go a long way towards fostering real change — whether that’s small steps such as following 10 outlets with opposing views to understand other opinions or joining the movement to push for reform of how social platforms rank and share content.

As Alemoru reminds us: curiosity is at the heart of journalism, so if the goal is to build a truthful industry, we need to be constantly investigating how we can do better.

Richard Reeves
Managing Director,
Association of Online Publishers (AOP)