This year has seen trust in the news fall to a historic low. In the US, it signals a deepening polarisation as political rhetoric spills into real-life consequences. But the impact of worsening trust in news is felt all over the world. The Reuters Institute’s 2022 Digital News Report highlighted this when revealing that 38% of people often or sometimes avoid the news – up from 29% in 2017.
Despite this bleak picture, there are concrete steps news publishers can take to build and maintain trust in their reporting. One factor that is growing in significance is using data, infographics, maps and charts to add context and help audiences to understand what is going on.
In a recent Conversations episode, Media Voices’ Chris Sutcliffe spoke to Reuters News Agency’s Politics Editor Scott Malone, Digital Verification Editor Stephanie Burnett and Director of Emerging Products and Special Events Rob Schack. They spoke about Reuters’ work in the run-up to the US midterm elections, and how they use data to help publishers build trust with audiences.
Planning accurate coverage of big moments like elections involves more than just on-the-day data. For the US midterms reporting, planning started almost as soon as the 2020 election had finished. “From early 2021 we were thinking about these midterms and the direction they would go in,” said Politics Editor Scott Malone. “It means having reporting teams that are on the ground and closely tracking key races. And it means having a great data set for election results so that you’re able to report things in real time.”
Context & transparency
One of the biggest ways news publishers can use data to build trust is by adding context. By itself, statistics and data can be used to support misinformation, so being clear about what figures mean and how those results have been achieved can help arm people against misleading narratives.
“When it comes to data, a lot of what we see is a false equivalence, so using data to manipulate the results, or to suggest that it confirms a narrative or information that is misleading or false,” explained Digital Verification Editor Stephanie Burnett. Her team at Reuters monitors various narratives on social media and other platforms to flag misinformation and give necessary context to misleading or false information
However publishers choose to illustrate the context of the data, transparency is key to building trust according to Burnett. “There’s a lot of complicated information out there, the numbers can be overwhelming,” she explained. “So it’s the job of journalists to distil that information and communicate it in an accurate, compelling way that is easily understandable for audiences.”
“Portraying that data does help build trust for audiences because that gives them the information they need to say, ‘Okay, this is unbiased information because it’s the numbers, it’s the facts. And now I can take that next step to come up with my own conclusion, or take that next step to make a decision.’”
It’s not something organisations can be complacent about. For their approach to US elections, the Reuters team have found that they need to be constantly evaluating how they report on the data and what it means. Changes in voting behaviours from in-person to postal votes are one example of how earlier swings can be reported in some states, which makes subsequent in-person voting shifts look suspicious.
“The way we look at the polls, the way we look at the data, the way we report on the results has shifted. It’s not something that stays the same from election to election,” noted Director of Emerging Products Rob Schack. “It requires constant attention to make sure we keep putting the election in context for our clients.”
Putting neutrality into practice
Neutral reporting is something audiences are increasingly claiming to seek out, even if they don’t always do so in practice. Reuters take steps to make sure all their own reporting is neutral, even if customers use their data in ways that aren’t neutral.
“If somebody has made a claim, is there a reason to believe that they know what they’re talking about? Can the claim be verified? Are there documents or other sorts of data that stand up?” said Malone. “Then once you’ve heard somebody’s argument, what other arguments are there? What are the other sides of the story?”
This approach doesn’t mean getting blinded by both sides-ism though. Malone explained that a story can be approached from both sides but that reporters must remain rooted in fact. “If you have a debate where part of it is based in fact, and part of the debate is not based in fact, you wouldn’t give the weight to it that you would to an evidence-based argument,” he outlined.
In order to remain neutral, journalists need to be aware of their own bias as individuals, said Burnett. She emphasised that everyone has their own biases and lived experiences which shape their opinions and values. “Unless you’re a robot, you have some bias in you,” she said. “Now to maintain neutrality in reporting, you need to be aware of your bias. That way you don’t have tunnel vision. It’s also important to know what those biases are [to be] aware of your blind spots.”
Neutrality is a crucial part of Reuters’ work. Each story goes through an additional two rounds of editors, so journalists are aware of potential holes in the story and are able to suggest changes in the interest of neutrality.
Advice for publishers on maintaining trust
“If a reader doesn’t trust what they’re reading, then there’s no real reason for them to read it any more,” said Malone, emphasising the importance of maintaining trustworthiness at all times. “All you can do is work as hard as you can, to be as insightful, as fast, and as fair as you can be. Show the reader how you know what you know and do that consistently over time.
Responding to false or misleading information can at times feel like an impossible task to get on top of, especially given the speed at which misinformation can spread. One way Reuters looks to get ahead is by ‘pre-bunking’; pre-emptively identifying disinformation narratives and writing about that.
With the data available, researchers have found that ‘pre-bunk’ articles are effective at reducing the risk of people falling for misinformation, Burnett noted. “So you say what we know, here are the facts, and also what we don’t know – being transparent about that. But getting ahead of the curve is crucial.”
Burnett would like to see more publishers explore audience concerns and take them seriously. One example given was during Covid-19 reporting, where in the early days of the vaccines being approved there was a lot of vaccine hesitancy. “It’s easy to say, ‘Well, the FDA approved it, the EU approved it, get on with it as it’s totally safe,” she explained. “But if we take a step back and focus on what is a concern, there were a lot of questions around it having happened so fast.
“If we tap into these kinds of questions that audiences have, and take them seriously – I’m not talking about indulging conspiracy theories and hateful rhetoric – but if we understand more about where audiences are coming from with these concerns, and we answer why the [approval] process was so much faster … then that can help build trust.”
This feature is sponsored by Reuters News Agency. Find out more in our Conversations episode with Reuters News Agency’s Scott Malone, Stephanie Burnett and Rob Schack discussing how data can help cut through the noise and build trust with audiences.