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Trust in the Media: How We Lost it and How we Can Regain it

Wooden blocks forming words Fact and Fake

Wooden blocks forming words "Fact" and "Fake", isolated on white background Credit: Marat Musabirov via iStock.

Few than four in ten people say they typically trust the news. That’s the stark takeaway from a recent report from Reuters Institute entitled What we Know and What we Think we Know. Trust is eroding and it is adding to growing political divides in which all sides can find ‘proof’ for their views online. 

In a series of interviews, the report sought to assess where trust in news stands across the world. They cover both the global south, in places such as Brazil and the Global North in the US, UK and Europe. 

According to the figures, trust is weak everywhere. In Brazil, 51% of people trust the news overall. However, in the UK and the US that was down to just 23% and 29% respectively. Tellingly, in each of the three countries, people were considerably more trusting in the news they use (54%, 39% and 45%). This suggests an element of confirmation bias in which people veer towards news sources which they feel supports their world view. 

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This in turn dilutes the trustworthiness of news sources themselves. For example, if most left-wing readers are moving to the Guardian and most right-wing readers opt for the Telegraph, both papers will start playing to the audience. They purposefully seek to place an appropriate spin on matters to suit the opinions of their audience. 

This raises the question about whether the traditional ‘unbiased’ news model will be commercially viable. As the report highlights, people say they want reporting from news sources with no particular point of view, but they opt for those who reinforce their own. News reporting is still after all a business, so the real challenge is how to demonstrate its value to the consumer. 

The BBC which, despite much criticism, remains one of the few flag wavers for genuinely unbiased news reporting often attracts flack from both sides of the isle. The commercial model of news today encourages bias.

The problem is made worse, says the report, by a lack of understanding about the news gathering process. Boundaries are blurring between solid editorial and sponsored content.

The average person does not have a great grounding in how we do our work on the most basic level.” Such a lack of knowledge makes it more difficult to assess the value of what people read. 

The mainstream media is not blameless. The report acknowledges its multiple failings, but it still remains the most reliable source of information around. However, with sources of news multiplying, along with multiple social media platforms, people are finding it harder to tell fact from fiction. 

The media’s failure to reflect the communities it serves makes it more difficult to build trust and defend the profession. 

If you ask a poor man on the street – someone who is historically deprived – whether there is media news content which is of relevance to their life and the way they are on any of the social or political issues, the answer would probably be no,” said Vinod Jose, Executive Editor of the Caravan in India. “Why should they trust the media?

Social media

The traditional media seems remote and uninteresting to average people. That view is reinforced by the arrival of social media. These have sprung up as intermediaries between the news and the media. More than ever before people are getting their news through Twitter or Facebook and this colours everything, they and read, but worse still, it facilitates and encourages headline or summary reporting, which is extremely easy to target with emotive language and false narratives. People share articles they do not read. For example, in the next few days we will publish an article which on the surface looks like it is backing the nonsense position taken by President Trump that the election was stolen by voting fraud. However, as the reader continues the article, it moves quickly back into reality. The whole article is truthful, but with the selective use of adjectives and imagery, we expect that it will result in a large proposition of those who share the article, doing so in error, assuming it is supportive of their pre-determined position. 

According to the Reuters report, journalists increasingly feel captive to these social media giants. 

When I see stuff all over Facebook from random sites, I’d be very curious how we get people to focus more on actual news organisations,” said Amanda Gilbert, television reporter, Fox 23, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Social media has created a wild west environment in which independent producers can quickly gain an audience. This can be a benefit and has contributed to the rise of alternative media sources which address some of the problems with mainstream media. But they also paved the way for malicious actors. 

Although social media algorithms have made progress in deleting toxic content such as this, they are fighting against huge numbers. According to research, nearly half of posts about COVID-19 came from bots.  

Users are becoming increasingly savvy to the social media environment. Even so, the study found that most people do not remember the source of news posts they have seen. 

Social media has also contributed to the rise of the ‘influencer’. 

People do not follow media organisations anymore; they follow other people,” David Friedlander, Editor-in-Chief, O Estado de S. Pauloe. “Then, some random guy who sees the world from his bedroom window and writes about everything receives the same importance as an organisation such as Estadão, which has 400 journalists working all the time.”

Nothing regulates these individuals. By definition, they come without a form of verification or trust. Worse still, research suggests some of the worst influencers gain the biggest traction. A Politico report found that right wing sites have a significant advantage on Facebook. Although, those on the right may beg to differ. 

Critics of social media argue it is because the platform’s algorithms specifically favour right wing posts. Facebook claim that right wing media is better at connecting with people on a visceral level. However, this in itself means the playing field is tilted towards more extreme, less trustworthy sources.  

Finding a solution 

While social media platforms can be part of the problem, the report suggests they can also be part of the solution. Data suggests the public are perfectly aware of how untrustworthy social media content can be. The lack of trust could, say some, increase demand for trusted watchmen to ensure the quality of information. 

Albeit reluctantly, platforms have been pushed into taking greater responsibility for the content they produce. During the election, social media platforms removed or flagged content which was found to be abusive or misleading. Twitter notably acted against the US President Donald Trump flagging multiple Tweets for containing misinformation, with Facebook quickly following suit. 

Engaging with social media providers can help to rebuild trust in the digital age. Although they have played a role in diluting the sources of information we use, and harming trust, they also offer a solution. 

There is one alternative social media provider that is different. That is Everyone on is a real person, no trolls, bots, spammers etc. This means total accountability. Bywire would recommend signing up as soon as you can and start Voicing your opinions today. 

Rebuilding trust 

Today, the online world encourages an intuitive, pragmatic approach in which journalists veer towards articles which will generate the greatest number of views, clicks and engagements. Content which generates engagements does not necessarily build trust. According to local television producer Seth Kaplan a long-term way to build trust is invest in the product itself, ‘quality journalism.’ By providing high quality journalism which users can’t find elsewhere, news organisations can restore trust in themselves and the institution. 

Most importantly, the report finds a journalism sector determined to fight for unbiased news. It may be difficult and it may turn people away, but it has never been more vital. 

As Pedro Dias Leite, Executive Director, CBN Radio said: “The fact the station makes impartial journalism in a polarised world doesn’t diminish trust, but it turns away an audience that sometimes thinks we are boring. But I’ll never give my impartiality up in exchange for that.”

This report highlights both the scale of the problem and the importance of fighting it. Journalism faces assaults from all sides. Politicians, lobbyists and extremists all have a vested interest in preventing you from believing what you see or hear. When society loses trust in the media democracy suffers. Restoring it is a fight we all have a stake in. 


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