Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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How impartial news reporting helps publishers build trust: Insights from Reuters Institute

“The bedrock of why people come to us”

“Overall trust in the news (44%) has rebounded strongly (+6) over the last year in almost all countries,” according to Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2021. “As has trust in the sources people use most often themselves, which is up four points to 50%. 

“This reverses, to some extent, recent falls in average trust bringing levels back to those of 2018.” 

The authors also note a “growing trust gap between the news sources people generally rely on and the news they find in social media and search, which remain unchanged on a like-for-like basis.”

Digital News Report 2021, Reuters Institute

The report is based on surveys of more than 92,000 respondents from 46 markets representing more than half of the world’s population. “We can speculate that this higher trust in the news – and in the sources people use themselves – could be related to extensive coverage of Coronavirus,” the authors suggest. “This may have made the news seem more straightforward and fact-based at the same time as squeezing out more partisan political news in some countries.”

Developments this year put further pressure on the business models of many traditional media, but have also reminded at least parts of the public of the importance and value of trustworthy news from independent news organisations.

Digital News Report 2021, Reuters Institute

“Clear link between perceptions of fairness and trust in the news”

The last survey for the Digital News Report took place before the pandemic. Many publishers reported an extraordinary increase in usage especially during the early months of the pandemic. “Our data, a year on, perhaps show which brands may have held onto those gains most effectively, giving a hint of more lasting changes,” the authors write.

Some of the most trusted news organisations – including commercial and public media brands – have retained quite significant extra online audiences in terms of online reach. 

Digital News Report 2021, Reuters Institute

“We see a clear link between perceptions of fairness and trust in the news,” they add. It’s seen prominently with respect to readers’ political views – those who think their politics are covered fairly tend to show “particularly high levels of trust in news.” 

For those news organisations looking to increase their audience trust, it therefore may make sense to reflect on how they cover certain groups. 

Digital News Report 2021, Reuters Institute

Since political divides can be very difficult to overcome, the authors suggest publishers focus on areas like race, gender, and socioeconomic class. The idea is based on research in some countries that has sometimes found clear evidence that coverage in these areas “often falls short of ideals or exacerbates problems.”

74% of the respondents prefer news that reflects a range of views

The findings also show that the majority of news consumers support impartial and objective news while acknowledging that they are sometimes drawn to more opinionated and less balanced content.

Although there are more options to access partisan news, 74% of the respondents prefer news that reflects a range of views and lets them decide what to think. 66% say that news outlets should try to be neutral on every issue. However, 24% feel that there are some issues where it makes no sense to try to be neutral.

Digital News Report 2021, Reuters Institute

People are more open to journalistic interpretation with respect to topics like natural events or stories where there is an established point of view. For example, a dam broke and caused flooding. 

It’s OK to lean to another side on [a subject] like domestic abuse and [for a journalist] to express an opinion on that, but with subjects like politics or COVID-19 it is really important to remain neutral, to allow the reader or listener or watcher to take decisions on their own. 

Survey participant

News consumers are open to opinion/commentary on the condition that it is clearly distinguished from reporting.  

The majority of the respondents also think that news outlets should give equal time to all sides when reporting on social and political issues. 

Digital News Report 2021, Reuters Institute

“In the US and UK, there is the view, particularly among older interviewees,” according to the report, “that different perspectives should be subject to the marketplace of ideas: bad arguments will be shown to be weaker when presented against stronger ones. Some feel that a good approach is to bring in different sides, contextualise them, and let the evidence play out.” 

These [anti-vaccination] opinions exist, so we have to see them … Do not just sweep it under the table and then suddenly be surprised that something exists. You have to acknowledge its presence. 

Survey participant

“The very essence of who we are”

Many publishers are already taking steps to satisfy readers’ needs for impartiality and fairness. Tim Davie, Director General, BBC declared that impartiality is more important than ever. “Trust in our impartiality is not a nice to have, it is the very essence of who we are. It is the bedrock of why people come to us,” he said in his introductory speech as the incoming Director-General. 

We urgently need to champion and recommit to impartiality. It is deliverable and it is essential. If you work here, nothing should be more exciting than exploring different views, seeking evidence with curiosity and creatively presenting testimony. Making use of our own experiences but not driven by our personal agendas.

Tim Davie, Director General, BBC

A challenge for the industry is “how to make impartial and objective reporting engaging or entertaining without straying into partiality,” the authors conclude. 

“This can become difficult as platforms and formats (e.g. social media, podcasts) become more informal and genres more mixed or harder to tell apart. 

Practices of impartiality need to adapt to these new ways of producing and consuming news.”

Digital News Report 2021

The full report can be downloaded from Reuters Institute:
Digital News Report 2021