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Rebuilding trust in media, in the face of global permacrisis

Trusted media brands do well in a crisis, but the constant negativity of 2022’s news cycle, and the twin scourges of misinformation and political polarisation are fueling record levels of news avoidance. Peter Houston rounds up the year in trust as part of our Media Moments 2022 report.

For a moment there it looked like trust was returning to the media. COVID-19 created a very real need for information and the public turned to familiar media brands. Unusually in recent times, 2021’s Digital News Report (DNR) reported that trust in the news media was up for the year, more or less everywhere except America.

However, this year’s DNR tells a more familiar story: just 34% of survey respondents in the UK said they trusted the news, and only 26% of those in the US. Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer for 2022 confirmed trust had fallen across the world and, worse, said seven in ten people worried that they were being lied to by journalists.

This direct lack of faith in media sources contributes to the rising phenomenon of news avoidance, although fatigue in these times of political upheaval, war and the cost of living crisis was identified as a bigger contributing factor. On average, 38% of those surveyed for the DNR 2022 said that they often or sometimes avoided news on certain topics – especially politics and COVID-19 – and 36% said it had a negative impact on their mood.

While there is little publishers can do about the global permacrisis we find ourselves living through, one set of statistics should give pause: Media headlines have grown significantly more negative over the past two decades. Research conducted by library journal PLoS ONE showed headlines expressing anger were up 104% since the year 2000; fear, 150% and sadness 54%.

Feeding the outrage engine with emotive headlines in pursuit of short-term traffic gains is having a negative long-term impact on the media’s ability to engage with audiences. It is also adding to the polarisation that has defined public debate recently; another major reason given for news avoidance (17%) was that discussing the news stoked arguments.

Rebuilding trust in the media

In his coverage of the 2022 DNR, journalism professor Damian Radcliffe highlighted some key takeaways that report-lead Nic Newman offered publishers trying to combat news avoidance.

Make news content more accessible.

Inaccessibility is one of the reasons young people and less educated groups selectively avoid the news. Newman recommends avoiding jargon, offering more explanations and asking for and answering audience questions.

Tell stories differently. 

Newman suggests finding more ways to cover difficult stories, providing hope or giving audiences ‘a sense of agency’ around stories like climate change. He says this may mean the adoption of solutions journalism as part of a mix of formats and content styles.

Label opinion and avoid sensationalism.

News startup Semafor addressed the first issue by separating facts from opinion  and offering counter opinions in its ‘Semaform’ format. CNN tackled breaking-news overkill with guidelines to reduce the use of ‘Breaking News’ banners on screen.

On the Media Voices Podcast, Martha Williams, CEO of World Newsmedia Network, spoke about the fragility of trust for media organisations. She explained: “The rule of thumb has always been, ‘it takes a second to lose trust and it takes years to rebuild trust.’”

Her advice for rebuilding trust is for publishers to be more transparent about how they work, especially in ‘opening the door’ to their audiences to help them understand how their journalism is created.

Listen: We were joined by Martha Williams on the Media Voices podcast to explore solutions to the endless decline of trust in the media. Listen here, or search for ‘Media Voices’ wherever you find podcasts.

The call for transparency extends to the collection of customer data, how it is used and what control they have over it. In the wake of the scandals that have plagued the social platforms, Meta in particular, she said there is a real opportunity for the media to differentiate itself in the minds of audiences, and a real risk if they don’t.

This chapter is an extract from our Media Moments 2022 report, sponsored by Poool and published in partnership with What’s New in Publishing. To read the full report including case studies, key facts and more, please fill in the form below:

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