Audience Engagement
5 mins read

Publishers begin the hard climb to earn back widespread public trust

Newspapers have retained the trust of their existing readers, even as overall trust in the news media has utterly buckled. As everyone mans their own lifeboats, is it still possible to save the ship from foundering, asks Chris Sutcliffe in this chapter from our Media Moments 2019 report.

This time last year our headline was ‘Publishers are hang gliding over the hell of a public trust crisis’. Since then the situation has become a little more nuanced, with some sections of the news media finding themselves on trajectories away from that crisis – but the vast majority are now in a nose dive.

The situation – particularly the UK – has become acute. We are an increasingly tribal public, mistrustful of institutions that don’t cater to our confirmation bias and blithely accepting of those that do. Politicians and the media are in constant conflict, and while it’s largely positive that the internet has given anyone a platform, the reality is that platform is as often abused as it is used positively. 

In this section, we’ll examine how we arrived at this point, and highlight the good work of some titles that are attempting to alleviate the trust crisis.

Where are we now?

Briefly, the UK was rocked over the course of 2019 by a number of confrontations between politicians and the media, especially as the end of the year and a looming General Election approached. 

Some of the UK’s politicians were effectively running on a Trumpian anti-media platform – see Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s exhortation that “I ask our media as as good journalists to just report what we say” and prime minister Boris Johnson’s threat to review Channel 4’s license after he chose not to appear on a televised climate change debate. No party was exempt from some attempt to smear or otherwise use the media to a duplicitous end, from the Conservative party misleadingly editing BBC broadcasts to the Liberal Democrats aping the style of a local paper in a political ad.

That, along with the lamentable widespread adoption of the term ‘fake news’, has led to a situation in which the UK public do not trust the news media as a whole and are disengaging from the news entirely.

That isn’t to say that the news media is blameless; at a time when Caesar’s Wife rules are fully in effect, publications the length and breadth of the political spectrum are either pandering to power, failing to disclose conflicts of interest, and peddling clickbait at the expense of the public. 

Covering the launch of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2019, journalism.co.uk’s Jacob Granger wrote: “News avoidance is a real problem, with 32 per cent of overall audiences switching off – a figure up 3 percent from last year.

Why? In the UK – where news avoidance is 35 percent – the answer is obvious. Brexit is to blame for two thirds of news avoidance, with 58 percent of audiences saying the news as a whole is too depressing, and 40 per cent feeling unable to have an impact.” 

Though causality is hard to pin down, it’s very possible that the increase in tribalism and the one-note nature of Brexit coverage is behind a 2 percent YOY fall in trust in ‘the media’ in 2019. As the Reuters report states: “As we have already seen, a majority of those who think that the news media fulfil their watchdog role trust the news (55 percent), whereas only about a quarter (28 percent) of those believing they do not fulfil this role say the same.”

While that 2% fall may not sound so bad on its own, it’s worth noting that since 2015 trust in the media in the UK fell from 51 percent to 40 percent in 2019, per the Digital News Report. That in turn is potentially responsible for the relatively sluggish growth in the proportion of people willing to subscribe to a news product in the UK – only 9 percent of the public currently subscribe.

While the examples above are UK specific, the Reuters report demonstrates that falling trust in the media is near universal.

Effectively, then, the trust crisis is as much a financial concern as it is a moral one. As you’d expect, people tend to trust the news outlets that hew closest to their own political leanings – the 2018 Digital News Report found 51 percent of audiences trust titles they already engage with, yet only 44 percent of audiences trust news overall. That’s led some newspapers – the tabloids especially – down a cul-de-sac where they can’t necessarily report accurately on a given issue for fear of alienating the aging readers on who they depend for revenue.

And while it’s been previously reported that people tend to trust their local newspapers over the national ones, that claim has been thrown into down this year by a study in the US from the Knight Foundation and Gallup, which found that local news is only trusted when it does not engage with national issues.

The report states: “The data suggest that moving into more aggressive coverage of social and political issues could further polarize views — and possibly lead to an erosion of trust. However, these are not issues that local news organizations can abandon without abdicating some of their mandate to help democracy flourish.”

However, there’s a potential chicken and the egg situation here, as Mary Ellen Klas writes for Nieman Reports: “…there’s evidence that as local news disappears and political information becomes more nationalized, voter polarization increases”.

So, how have news organisations and start-ups been attempting to recapture audience trust? 

The best bet – or at least where most publishers have been placing their chips – is increasing transparency and engagement with their readers. Speaking at the World News Media Congress in June, Warren Fernandez, editor in chief of Singapore’s The Straits Times noted that its newsroom in Singapore invites subscribers into the offices to demonstrate the process of journalism: “You would be amazed at the questions they have – they were really interested to find out the workings of the newsroom.”

That transparency (and direct engagement with the journalists) is increasingly at the heart of many membership models at news publishers. Despite a rocky year, transparency around the commissioning process is still at the core of The Conversation’s mission, for example, while the Guardian’s executive editor of membership role is almost exclusively concerned with connecting journalists and audiences.

Even the NYT is making more of an effort to show how the sausage is made, with CO Mark Thompson stressing that its show The Weekly would demonstrate the shoe-leather journalism its employees undertake, to counter the ‘fake news’ rhetoric of Trump.

What can we expect in the future?

It’s difficult to see how any single intervention could suddenly turn this ship around. Most publications are aware that their best bet is to establish a core base of loyal readers who trust them, rather than investing in restoring trust in the news more widely. 

However, it’s extremely likely over the course of 2020 that we’ll see more support and investment paid to organisations like Hearken or the European Journalism Centre’s Engaged Journalism Accelerator, who are seeking to find ways to deepen the relationship between audience and publisher. Trust has to be earned, after all, and in the case of UK newspapers especially that means that trust needs to be earned back after a few years of failures.


To read more from this chapter, including case studies, download the full Media Moments 2019 report.

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