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Building trust in a “sizable, disengaged, and indifferent audience”

Publisher insights from Reuters Institute

Editors note: We are republishing an article by Faisal Kalim looking into the RISJ report on trust in news. This piece was originally published on What’s New in Publishing.

“Indifference, not hostility is the primary challenge for journalists when faced with the task of increasing trust in news,” according to a new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ). 

The report Overcoming indifference: What attitudes toward news tell us about building trust, is the third in the series of reports from RISJ’s Trust in News Project. It’s based on survey data from the US, the UK, Brazil and India, and seeks to help publishers interested in building trust in news better understand their audience.

The study classifies news consumers as ‘generally untrusting’, ‘selectively trusting’, or ‘generally trusting’ towards specific news brands in their countries. The report focuses specifically on the ‘generally untrusting’ who constitute about a quarter of respondents in each country. 

This is the category that is the most challenging for publishers to attract and engage. The other two, i.e., ‘generally trusting’, appreciate most brands, and ‘selectively trusting’, value at least some brands. This makes them comparatively less challenging to win over. 

Source: Overcoming indifference: What attitudes toward news tell us about building trust

Lack of trust out of indifference and uncertainty

Those who are least trusting toward news tend to be older (55 years and above), less educated, less interested in politics, and less connected to urban centers. They are also more likely to be men (Brazil and India – 59%; the UK – 53%; evenly divided in the US). 

People who lack trust in news are not necessarily its most vocal critics (that’s the selectively trusting). They are individuals who are “often the least knowledgeable about journalism, disengaged from how it is practiced, and the least interested in the editorial decisions publishers and editors make everyday.” 

The generally untrusting tend to be much less engaged with journalism altogether. Many may default to a lack of trust out of indifference and uncertainty.

Overcoming indifference: What attitudes toward news tell us about building trust

Key aspects of editorial practices deemed important by the generally trusting segment, like transparency about how news is produced, how it is financed, who reports it, are treated with indifference by the generally untrusting.

Few are familiar with basic journalistic terms and concepts like the difference between a news story, an editorial, and a press release. They are also least likely to have experienced interaction with journalists.  

The generally untrusting are also less interested in news. The survey data reveals that less frequent news use consistently correlates with less trust. Those who say they access news less often than once a day tend to be more untrusting. 51% of the generally untrusting segment in the US do not access news frequently compared to 23% of those who are generally trusting. Comparative figures for the UK  are 34% and 17%. 

In contrast, trust tends to be highest among respondents who say they used a particular news brand during the previous week. In fact, in some cases, those who accessed news on social media had even higher levels of trust.

Source: Overcoming indifference: What attitudes toward news tell us about building trust

A distinct challenge

“Our research shows that those who most consistently lack trust in news are often those who are also least well-equipped to differentiate between brands and less interested in doing so,” says Dr. Benjamin Toff, the lead author of the report. “The untrusting default to skepticism, even cynicism, about news sources generally and hold a dim view about how most journalists do their jobs. 

“Winning over this sizable, disengaged, and indifferent audience is a distinct challenge from building trust with the loudest and often most partisan voices who are typically the most outspoken critics of journalism.”

The report outlines a three-pronged strategy that includes addressing communication, marketing and creative challenges. 

Publishers are suggested to begin by figuring out how to communicate the value of journalism to the generally distrusting segment – why it’s important for them on a personal level, as well as for society in general. They also need to drive home the difference between journalism and other types of information. 

Journalists and news media may think that the unique value proposition of independent, professionally produced news is obvious. To much of the public, it isn’t. Professionals might think that the work speaks for itself. It clearly doesn’t. 

Overcoming indifference: What attitudes toward news tell us about building trust

The next part is the marketing challenge. This is about engaging with and building trust with people who are unlikely to come directly to news sites or apps. So publishers may need to consider using platforms they are wary of. They will also have to demonstrate enough value to build habit and loyalty. This ties into the next challenge, i.e., creative or editorial.

The creative challenge requires newsrooms to explore how they can reorder journalistic priorities to produce content that’s perceived valuable by the generally untrusting and engages them. 

How can news outlets better demonstrate a desire to report on issues that extend beyond the intricacies of daily politics, or cover the good things happening in the world, not only all that is negative and depressing? The generally untrusting judge news media harshly on all of these characteristics, but so too do many others. 

Overcoming indifference: What attitudes toward news tell us about building trust

“We believe what is needed are more experiments, both in the lab and in the field, that test the effectiveness of different interventions,” the authors suggest. “Building and sustaining trust likely requires different approaches for different audience segments. By testing how different groups respond to different messages, news outlets can develop an evidence-based strategy for how best to move forward.”

More From The Fix: Increase in trust — decline in interest

Photo by NASA on Unsplash


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