A Matter of Trust: Benjamin Toff of the Reuters Institute talks about boosting public confidence in journalism

When Ipsos recently released its latest Veracity Index measuring the trust the British public has in various professions, it painted a mixed picture for journalists. While the proportion of Britons who say they trust journalists has nearly doubled since 2000, it is still among the five least trusted professions in the UK. It shows just how much work still needs to be done to restore the public’s confidence in journalism.

And that’s not just in the UK. According to the latest Trust Barometer from PR firm Edelman, a majority of people around the world are concerned that they are being lied to by journalists. Two-thirds (67%) of respondents said they believe reporters purposely try to mislead people by saying things they know are false or grossly exaggerated – an increase of 8% on the company’s last report published in 2021. 

And according to a 2022 survey by the Pew Research Centre, the number of Americans who trusts local news outlets – the most trusted among all age groups in the United States – is at its lowest point in recent years, falling from 85% in 2019 to 71% this year.

Someone who’s been watching the fluctuating trust levels in media with interest is Dr Benjamin Toff, Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Toff leads the Trust in News Project, a three-year initiative (now in its final year) looking at trust in digital news in Brazil, India, the United Kingdom and the US through qualitative and quantitative research, and ongoing engagement with journalists and other stakeholders. 

“For reporters and editors there is a concern about declining trust because it is central to them fulfilling their role as they see it, as independent watchdogs of those in power,” says Toff. “If the public doesn’t trust the press, it makes it easier for politicians and elite figures to disregard their reporting. Journalists have said that as trust has declined in their countries, political leaders find it easier to disregard the press altogether.

“And from the audience’s perspective, trust is a valuable shortcut. We live in a complicated world so if people do have sources they can trust, it makes it easier to navigate what’s happening and you don’t have to validate everything you see reported.”

Dr Benjamin Toff, Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford

The global view

Running through the four countries the Trust in News Project monitors. Toff reveals they have seen a decline in trust in the UK over the last decade or so, while confidence in journalism is reasonably high in India. Trust in Brazil has declined significantly and rapidly and, in the US, where trust has been low for a while, it is more a case of polarisation.

“During the Trump administration you had increases in trust among Democrats and further declines on the right,” he says. “In the US there is a sharp divide along ideological partisan lines and you see smaller versions of that in other countries.”

While there are high levels of trust in media in many places around the world, that is not automatically a healthy situation, says Toff.

“Critics (in some countries) will claim corruption and close connections between publishers and those in power so some journalists have said the public should be less trusting of the mainstream media news and more discerning,” he points out.

“So that is another aspect of this – high trust is not automatically a good thing. The question is on what basis are audiences selectively trusting some sources and not others depending on the media environment that they are in.”

“There are gaps in the public’s knowledge about what journalists do and there are opportunities for the profession to make a more affirmative case for itself and differentiate what a professional journalist does and why they are valuable.”

Why do people lose trust?

While levels of distrust in journalism falls along age, gender and class lines, the most noticeable dividing line between those who have confidence in journalism and those who don’t is political engagement.

“There is a gap between people who are politically disengaged and less trusting in news in general versus people who are more politically involved and more interested in politics,” says Toff. “So, you see some of that play out in terms of demographics as well. Older people tend to be somewhat less trusting than younger people. Men tend to be less trusting. In the US and UK there are rural differences with people in less urban areas tending to be less trusting of news.”

A group that journalists and news organisation are particularly concerned about are those using digital platforms for news.

“Journalists and news organisation raise a lot of concern about people using digital platforms as being one of the major reasons behind the decline of trust,” says Toff. “We think there is some connection there but people using digital platforms tend to be more trusting of news because they tend to more educated and have a higher socioeconomic status. The thing is they also encounter more criticism of news to the extent that people’s sense of the media environment is that it’s important to be sceptical of everything you are reading online.

“The fact that people don’t have a longterm relationship with news organisations and are navigating these digital spaces is a real challenge for news organisations that are doing high quality work and rigorous reporting and are hoping audiences will differentiate between the original reporting they do and everything else people are seeing on the internet.

“In many cases audiences are not particularly plugged in and that does present a challenge for those journalistic institutions that are trying to make the case that what they are doing is really distinct and off value.”

How to build trust

Toff warns there’s no “silver bullet” to improve trust in journalism, but there are simple steps news organisations can take to improve things.

“There’s not one solution that’s going to fit all segments of the public because they have different concerns and frustrations with what they expect news to look like,” he says. “The key question is, what audiences are you trying to build trust with and do you want to build trust broadly across the entire public or deepen engagement with specific smaller segments of the public?

“The groups that are least trusting are also the groups that are least likely to subscribe to news, so they tend not to be the main focus of a lot of news organisations. Organisations that are dependent on reader revenue are more likely to deepen trust with already relatively trusting members of the public who are looking for a different set of things than the least engaged members.”

Toff says news groups should also pay closer attention to the way their news content appears on social media.

“A lot of news organisations will talk about the work they are doing on their own websites to emphasise transparency and their journalistic practices and mission statements. And while I think that can be really valuable to audiences who are going to take the time to pay closer attention to that sort of thing, a lot of people are never going to see that.

“For reporters and editors there is a concern about declining trust because it is central to them fulfilling their role as they see it, as independent watchdogs of those in power.”

“So, you have to develop a reputation with the public who are only really encountering you on their social media feed for fleeting seconds and may, over time, develop an impression of that brand. The little things you do are important – like the way the headline is worded or the images that appear next to stories or the mix of topics that people are seeing. These things may have a larger effect on shaping people’s idea of what the brand is.

“Our data also suggests that a lot of people have a very negative ideas over what it is that journalists do and don’t have a lot of understanding about what journalists do. There are gaps in the public’s knowledge and there are opportunities for the journalism profession to make a more affirmative case for itself and differentiate what a professional journalist does and why they are valuable.”

Toff adds that while many individual journalists are worried about trust and the impact of their reporting, the issue of trust is, from a larger organisational standpoint, often part of a larger set of questions around strategic priorities – like whether building trust is a means to an end to broaden subscription revenue.

“Every organisation has to weigh the priorities they have, especially with the way the media landscape is changing,” he says. “So, it’s understandable that trust is often part of a larger conversation. But I think many journalists would very much like to see more focus on the subject.”


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