Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
4 mins read

From brand to gut instinct—the triggers of trust: Key insights for publishers from Pew Research, Reuters Institute and Knight Foundation

“Trust often revolves around ill-defined impressions of brand identities.” 

The news organization that publishes a story is a very important factor when determining its trustworthiness for half of US adults, according to a recent Pew Research Center study

The study is based on a March 2021 survey of 12,045 US adults. It focuses on five factors that influence their trust level in a news story. 50% of the participants indicate the news organization that publishes the story to be a critical factor, followed by the sources cited in it (47%). 30% say they follow their gut instinct. 24% look at the journalist who reported the story and 23% say it depends on who shares the story with them. An additional factor—whether the story has a lot of shares, comments or likes on social media—is cited as important by 6%.

Age, political leaning and race are some important factors that influence trust. Older Americans (65+) are generally more likely (57%) than younger Americans to look at the news organization that publishes a story, and the sources cited in it (54%), as critical factors when assessing its trustworthiness. Comparative figures for these factors among those under 30, are 42% and 41%, respectively. 

The finding is consistent with earlier Pew Research Center studies which found that younger Americans tend to feel less connected to their sources of news. They are also less likely to remember the sources of online news.

Going deeper, 59% of adults with a college degree say it’s very important to consider the news organization that publishes a story, compared to 43% who have a high school diploma or less education. The figures are 54% and 40% for these groups, with respect to the sources cited in a news story. 

Avid news followers are more likely to see all of the factors asked about in the survey as critical when deciding on a news story’s trustworthiness. 

John Gramlich, Senior Writer/Editor, Pew Research Center

“The main deciphering of trustworthy news sources” 

The focus on the news organization or brand as a critical determinant of trust, reflects the findings of a Reuters study published in April 2021. The study, Listening to What Trust in News Means to Users, is based on open-ended conversations with cross-sections of people in Brazil, India, UK, and the US in early 2021. 

It found that readers’ perception of news is often built around their sense of familiarity with brands. Participants frequently mentioned relying on brand-level impressions based on rules of thumb, or context clues to determine sources’ reliability and credibility. 

For example, many readers tend to trust publications they have seen being consumed in their families through their childhood.

Trust often revolves around ill-defined impressions of brand identities and is rarely rooted in details concerning news organizations’ reporting practices or editorial standards – qualities that journalists often emphasize about their work.

Listening to What Trust in News Means to Users, Reuters Institute

A publisher’s reputation and longevity of existence was also cited by participants as a determinant of its credibility. “It’s more because if they are a big enough brand, an old enough organization, they seem to have better practices,” said UK based Andrew (25). “I guess there’s better regulations, I guess they get in trouble if they misreport facts. So, I think that is the main reason, the main deciphering of trustworthy news sources, and the best way to find it.”

Reliance on sensationalism and click-baits can affect the credibility of a publisher, according to the authors. Many participants expressed preference for in-depth reporting, and reporters asking hard questions. The presence of numbers or statistics or visual signals boosted the credibility of the news for some. They saw these cues as indications that journalists had carefully studied the situation they were reporting on.

It is super important that the news are detailed with sources, statistics, and graphs, and seen from several different perspectives. This brings more certainty and credibility to the information.

Listening to What Trust in News Means to Users, Reuters Institute

Objectivity and impartiality scored high for many participants who said they would prefer journalists keep their opinions out of reporting and stick to facts. Others were more accepting of opinions as long they were not biased.

“These findings point both to opportunities and challenges for news organizations that seek to build trust with their audiences,” the authors note. News publishers would benefit by “providing clearer cues and signals about who they are, their histories, what they stand for, and how they do their work.”

They recommend publishers to “promote their own unique strengths compared to their competitors in more consistent and memorable ways.”

“Strongest predictor of how users would rate the overall quality of an article”

Another study, How Americans Process the News by the Knight Foundation, found that the “perception that a news article is ‘personally relevant’ to the reader is the biggest factor in boosting overall impressions of the article’s quality.”

Personal relevance of the article (e.g., “it covers the topic in a way that matters to me”) emerged as the strongest predictor of how users would rate the overall quality of an article, including those from politically ‘adversarial’ news outlets.

Jesse Holcomb, Knight Foundation

The study also found that while readers gravitate to news content that matches their political inclination, it’s to a lesser extent than generally believed. Even those “who indicated strong partisanship nevertheless selected articles from outlets across the spectrum.” It was seen that out of a 100 articles that a partisan reader opened, on average, 36 were from politically sympathetic sources, 33 from neutral sources, and 31 from adversarial sources.

The findings “show us a view of news audiences that is less a caricature than some pundits would suggest,” writes Jesse Holcomb, Assistant Professor, Calvin College. “These audiences are influenced by partisan predispositions, no doubt, but still likely to graze across a range of different news outlets.”

Users are concerned about fairness and accuracy in the news they read; yet at the end of the day, they want information that is going to matter in their everyday life.

Jesse Holcomb, Knight Foundation