Why Trust in the Media Matters

In Britain, it's a mixed story of trust in media. The Edelman Trust Barometer - an annual survey of how much we believe the major institutions which govern our lives will "do the right thing"- suggests a large number of us simply don't.
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Can you believe anything you read nowadays? In this maelstrom of information that we inhabit, how do you know what to trust?

It's actually quite rare for us as human beings to test consciously whether we trust something. But one area where it does happen is with the news. Do I trust the journalist, editor or the proprietor to give me an honest report? Or do I not care just so long as it's entertaining?

In Britain, it's a mixed story of trust in media. The Edelman Trust Barometer - an annual survey of how much we believe the major institutions which govern our lives will "do the right thing"- suggests a large number of us simply don't. Just over 50% of Britons trust the media, and when you look closely at titles, the picture is more acute. Broadsheet newspapers and television are trusted considerably more than mid-market or tabloid, with similar trust scores to politicians.

We're not alone in seeing this trend. The Digital News Report, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism today, shows further evidence that trust in media is eroding.

To some extent this is a global issue. The wider news spreads, the more it gets questioned. The more information people are exposed to, the more they have to exercise their critical faculties.

It's a supply-side issue as well: the more sources that come into being the more contradictions in reports of the same story will occur. And it's an issue of technology and malign intent: the more digital tricks that become available to propagandists and hoaxers, the less trust we ought to place in what is served up to us.

The EU referendum is one of the best cases yet of this phenomenon. The public is bombarded with data, which is unpacked and rubbished by the opposing camp. On both sides of the debate, newspapers are strongly driving their house view through the news pages and editorials.

The paradox of it all is that, though acres of coverage has focused on this debate, the likelihood is that if it has achieved anything it is to further erode trust in media and politicians.

Does all this really matter? Well, I would argue that it does. In a broad, societal sense, it matters whether or not our media is trusted.

Any examination of political rhetoric shows a disturbing trend: facts are increasingly valued in the same way as opinion. What is most surprising in this year's Reuters data is the increasing dominance of social media platforms as gatekeepers of news content. For some young demographics, social media is the only place they are served and consume news.

The irony is that while digital has created a flourishing of sources, some are consuming news in a narrower and more self-reinforcing way than ever. Digital on the one hand promised so much, but the risk now is that consumers are self-selecting news and driving themselves into opinion-ghettos and the likelihood of coming across opinion that runs counter to one's own is diminishing.

So it does matter that an increasingly large group of people are cynical about what they read, and that is particularly important when it comes to critical public issues such as Brexit.

Being trusted is also a matter of commercial survival for the media. The Trust Barometer makes it clear that when people trust a company they buy products, pay a higher price and recommend to others.

Media companies, particularly publishers, are struggling with a grim outlook of plunging advertising revenues and falling circulation. We've recently seen the forced marriage of two great Italian titles, La Repubblica and La Stampa, the closure of the Independent in print and massive job culls at The Guardian.

It would seem that there are few industries more in need of the boost offered by increased trust than the news industry. But Britain also happens to be the country, according to the Digital News Report, where people are least willing to pay for news.

Publishers point the finger at the somewhat overbearing presence of the publicly-funded BBC and they have a point.

However, before we jump to connect the dots, we should think harder: it's probably just as likely that many people no longer visit media outlets for "trusted" information. They go for fun. Or entertainment.

They know they can trust some sources more than others and they don't mind. But in a world of declining revenues, it's important to know what role trust is having on the bottom line. If news consumers can't trust a source are they likely to pay for it?

The conclusion is that trust isn't a market-mover for every media owner, but for those who are going to rely on being paid online, it will be vital.

Ed Williams is CEO, Edelman UK

This post is an extract from the Digital News Report 2016

The Edelman Trust Barometer 2016


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