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Can we trust (the news) again?

Key findings from the new RISJ report

Trust in news has been on a decline globally. In some countries trust in the media has fallen by double digits in recent years. News outlets had a trustworthiness bump early during the pandemic, but this trust has since diminished, and underlying factors have arguably not changed.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has published a report on trust in news, gathering the key knowns and unknowns on the topic. The report focuses on the examples of Brazil, India, the UK, and the US. We picked four of the report’s key findings.

(Dis)trust in news has no single root or dimension

Source: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, CC BY license

As the report’s authors put it, there is no single “trust in news” problem. Rather, the issue involves the supply of news and “changing expectations in what audiences demand from increasingly complex contemporary media environments.”

By the same token, the roots of distrust in news are also multidimensional. One of the problems is a lack of media literacy. A lot of people don’t know how journalism works and have a low “understanding of newsgathering and verification practices.”

Another problem concerns journalists’ own shortcomings. Coverage gaps and lack of diversity in the newsroom don’t help in building a nourishing relationship with a wider audience.

More from The Fix: The Fix Weekly Digest: Skepticism of the News

The problem often has a political dimension

Political polarization is another major driver of growing distrust in the news media. While there exists a solid body of research showing the growing polarization of media trust in the United States, the report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows similar problems in Brazil and India.

Political leaders play a big role in promoting this polarization, sowing distrust in outlets that are critical of them (as is the case in Brazil or the United States). This is the so-called “fake news” problem – the global phenomenon of politicians branding news they dislike as intentionally falsified.

Consumers are part of the problem. Although appetite for apolitical news is strong, the numbers show that there’s also a strong demand for media outlets that confirm people’s existing points of view. In short, playing to a specific audience is a dominant strategy for many publications.

Source: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, CC BY license

More from The Fix: After Trump and record elections: what’s next for the news media? 

Tech platforms present a big concern (but we don’t know exactly)

The negative impact of big tech platforms on traditional news media outlets has been well-documented and widely discussed. 

There’s a strong case to be made that algorithmic feeds, sometimes filled with misinformation but playing a huge role in users’ consumption of news, undermine media outlets’ brand identity and “erode the integrity of content by undermining its provenance”.

Yet, the extent of tech platforms’ influence on trust in news remains a big unknown at this point.  

We don’t know how to effectively counter the problem

Although there are strong incentives to counter the distrust in news, which is clearly detrimental to society, we don’t have enough research on the problem’s causes and workable solutions, and it’s important to get it right. 

As the report notes, “there is a considerable risk here of doing things that look good and/or feel good, or imitating what others are doing on the basis of little or no evidence, which could lead to wasted efforts at best and counterproductive results at worst.”

Some of the questions that will guide future research are the extent of necessary transparency for media organizations, the origins of preconceptions about news and the avenues for changing them, and setting right priorities in polarized settings.

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