Is there a crisis of trust in the fragmenting news environment?

The long-established business model of news organisations is being challenged like never before. People are forsaking print for digital and mobile, and ad blockers are wreaking havoc. Print advertising revenues are plummeting, putting the sustainability of news production at risk. Amidst this turmoil, aggregators and social media are gaining traction and gobbling up ad spend – but they are curators, rather than creators, of news content.

This looming crisis recently provoked the News Media Association to write to ministers in the UK warning that aggregators pose a threat to democracy by taking their ad revenue: “Significant value is being captured by companies who do not invest in original journalism at the expense of those who do.”

Speaking to the Financial Times, Mathias Döpfner, chief executive of Axel Springer, Europe’s largest publisher, warned that many traditional news media companies could die, leaving Silicon Valley distributing user-generated and commercially-generated content – a traumatic mix of facts, rumours and propaganda. Disruptive technologies take no prisoners.

With growing numbers of people relying on social media for news, both the Brexit result in the UK and the ascendance of Donald Trump in the US have raised concerns about the accuracy and reliability of news in what some describe as post-facts echo chambers. Yet, trust in mainstream news remains low.

Social media can alert people to news, and help shape perspectives – but it is a minefield. 

How do people make sense of the plethora of providers and the cacophony of voices they face online?
What drives trust in distributed environments? Kantar Media was commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University to design and conduct a multi-country qualitative research studyi to shed some light on these issues.

The international refugee/immigration news provided a live case study to explore across countries. A fraught story of human horror intersecting political difficulties, it represents on-going news that resists an easy narrative arc with resolution. Encountered in many ways, both actively and passively, it has many angles, from humanitarian to economic and security related. The reporting of these incidents within the wider story can be polarising, encouraging engagement in some people, but a sense of skewed coverage in others.

Consumers’ trust in news is complex, but it is most readily associated with news content and, in particular, perceptions of its accuracy, impartiality, and tonality.
In our analysis we sifted carefully through all the conversations and tasks set in the fieldwork to build up a model of the factors that foster trust in news.

  • Accuracy and impartiality are the fundamental building blocks, which are founded on thorough research and checking. Wariness was expressed about political agendas and dissonant perspectives. There was also concern about the distortion of commercial interests and the questionable motivation of click-bait links. (Indeed, Buzzfeed recently reported on fake news that generates money on click-throughs without any regard for truthfulness.) Furthermore, in Germany, where the 2015 New Year’s Eve assaults were still fresh in people’s minds, it was notable that some questioned the possible suppression of the full story on the basis that the reporting itself might impact reactions to events.
  • Tonality facilitates the conveying of news. It can provide clarity and engagement, but confidence in the fundamentals can be undermined when news content is perceived as having an overtly attention-grabbing tone. Sensationalist headlines, provocative images and emotive tone of voice are all cues that can stir strong emotions and feel manipulative.
  • The capability and experience of the news organisation, which derive from skilled journalists and track record, provide the credentials that support trust in the news produced, and this is underpinned by the integrity of the operation.
  • Nevertheless, there is still a need for a critical gaze. Coherence across multiple sources helps build trust, and plurality of sources allows this triangulation – although it requires some effort. This in turn depends on the type of news story, the level of personal interest and need, and the potential for vested interests.
Aggregators address the need for plurality by conveniently enabling news to be selected from a range of stories and sources, although they require some trial because not all aggregators are equal. However, it is the established news brands that generate trust within this environment. Aggregators capitalize on this: the credibility of news brands enhances the aggregator’s own credentials and credibility.

Trusting in news via social media is more complex.
Social media is appreciated for its ease of access and the way it provides different perspectives.
It is great for alerting people to news, but there are concerns about inaccurate information and unpleasant comments.

The headline and image provide the main draws to a story of interest in social media, but it is the news brand that provides the credibility and trust, especially for those actively using the platform for news. News brands are useful signals of accuracy amidst the risks of misinformation and propaganda – at least, initially.

Where content from news brands is received incidentally, over time the platform can usurp the credibility to become a trusted destination, with less recognition going to the news content brand. This is especially the case where the news brand is recessive in the social media platform.

News also arrives by serendipity from friends, who might or might not be trusted, depending on their purpose in sharing, their credibility, and even the validation of crowd popularity. First-hand accounts and citizen journalism complement, or even compete with, news brands. A trusted friend can also serve as an endorser of an unknown source, such as a digital-born news brand.

These distributed environments rely on algorithms to provide the selection of content. Generally, younger and tech-engaged people are more open to algorithms, which they consider more independent, providing a broader yet tailored selection across a range of brands, although some acknowledge they can produce odd results.

However, social filtering risks creating a news bubble. A diet of mutually corroborating stories can skew perceptions through the social reinforcement of confirmation bias. It can also amplify corrosive misrepresentation and inaccuracy. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned recently, “These algorithms – when they are not transparent – can lead to a distortion of our perception. They narrow our breadth of information.”

Clearly, brand is an important vehicle for trust in news, but the relationship between audience and news brand is insidiously eroding in distributed environments.
While playing a crucial role in alerting people to news and shaping perspectives, social media and aggregators pose dilemmas for publishers over how to engage with these powerful platforms, and they raise wider questions about the important role of the Fourth Estate in supporting democracy.

Jason Vir, Director, Kantar Media

i The fieldwork was undertaken in February 2016 in Germany, Spain, the UK and the US among men and women, aged 20-54, with a medium to high interest in news, which they consumed from a range of platforms and providers. Participants were sensitised to their news consumption with a diary task and a subsequent deprivation exercise. A deliberative bricolage process of groups and depths followed this, which contextualised trust and deconstructed news before examining live examples of news across aggregators and social media.

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