Trust in the media is low around the world. Is the media targeting the wrong people?

It has become an article of faith among editors and journalists that they must come up with strategic efforts to build reader trust. However, late last year, a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford offers a sobering caveat:

Few efforts to build reader trust have reached beyond existing readers and likely subscribers to outright doubters.

I asked Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the institute, whether this should be interpreted as pessimism about the whole trust effort of recent years. “I would say realism,” he said. “Even if the truth is not entirely welcome…we have to be lucid about the incentives (at stake).”

At present, these incentives appear to be primarily retention of subscribers or broadcast audiences, often associated with the addition of a new paid digital base, according to the report. This means that “few individual news organizations have clear incentives to invest in building trusting relationships with indifferent, skeptical, or downright hostile parts of the public.” Additionally, few organizations with trust-building initiatives “can report systematic efforts to track their effectiveness.”

The findings were based on focus group discussions with journalists from four countries – the US, UK, Brazil and India. (A previous Reuters survey report last summer found that trust levels are low around the world, and the United States ranks last among 46 countries surveyed).

For one thing, Nielsen said, the primary measure of trust is the attitude of nonprofessional users alone. But he and his co-author Benjamin Toff thought it was worth digging deeper into how the challenge of trust plays out within news organizations. Given limited resources, it may make sense for individual organizations to narrowly focus their engagement efforts on the best prospects, write the authors of the Reuters report. The problem is “for journalism more generally,” they continue:

If news outlets are each focused on building trust with those who are already most likely to trust them — and many are already competing for readers’ attention, trust and revenue with the same parties of the public, often already relatively confident (and privileged) – the people most indifferent or distrustful of information, who are the hardest to reach and the most resistant to such appeals, and frankly often less attractive commercially , risk being left behind or further alienated.

Discussion writers have indicated that they are aware of the problem and have offered experimental solutions that their organizations are trying.

Paul Volpe, who became editor of a new New York Times trust team in September, said the Times shares Reuters’ view that there are groups of “loyal die-hards who already believe you”. and “inconvertibles that never will”.

The Times focuses on defining a third middle group who could be those who don’t yet know what to think: “Maybe it’s a younger audience, maybe it’s someone who doesn’t isn’t as exposed to the media.”

One way to define this group, Volpe continued, may be social media comments, many of which are based solely on the incomplete picture a headline paints rather than an assessment of the whole story. Such posts can pave the way for subsequent articles needed to address commenters’ concerns.

Suki Dardarian, senior editor and vice president of The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, offered a similar perspective from a regional newspaper: “If it’s older, selfless people, how hard do I have to work hard to get these people, when I have a group of young people who might be more interested? Like, I’m not saying I cross them off, but you know, if I have to make choices…”

She also talked about the Star Tribune initiatives considered successes in building trust. Internal metrics suggested reader interest in uplifting stories, so The Star Tribune markedly increased its storytelling on faith, religion and spirituality.

Similarly, an annual article on lifestyle challenges, such as cutting sugar or improving sleep, prompted the creation of a community format on these topics that attracted thousands of comments.

For the hardest-to-reach groups, the report concludes that there are no easy answers, especially in a climate of polarization and media bashing. But he argues: “Much of the public sees journalism and the news media as powerful institutions… and they are unlikely to accept that the root of the problem lies elsewhere, or that they have little power. options available to him. So giving up on building trust can look like a lack of real interest in the issue.

I asked Nielsen for further thoughts on what outlets could do. He offered three.

“Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, and that’s kind of encouraging,” he said. Outlets should not shy away from “showing the value of their work”.

Nielsen also believes the media “should be as clear as possible about the organization’s mission,” especially at a time when large segments of the public suspect hidden agendas. “You have to have ideals. Say it and then show it.

Nielsen has noticed (as have I) how many top digital startups are explicit about their mission and editorial standards. Many newspapers, on the other hand, “may be 100 years old, but it’s easy to forget that, especially among a community of young readers, what you stand for may not be known,” he said. .

Third, Nielsen suggests – as the report does – that outlets need to spend time facing the facts about what they think about alternative trust strategies. “Nobody can do everything,” Nielsen said, but it was easy to revert to a narrow approach without much thought.

He offered, as examples of creative approaches, a CBC initiative to embed journalists in pop-up newsrooms in remote Indigenous communities or the Los Angeles Times’ “report with its own story” of inadequately cover the many ethnic and racial groups it targets. to serve.

Looking ahead, Nielsen suggested the media could borrow a page from the successful politicians’ playbook. “You do a series of things to energize the base and another to reach the undecided.”

Its agenda for 2022 includes more academic work to understand the everyday impact of platforms and designing online experiences to see what works among what is tried.

I also asked for a reaction to the report from Joy Mayer, founder and director of Trusting News (and an adjunct faculty member at Poynter). “It hits absolutely crucial tensions,” she said. “There are choices to be made about who you want to serve.”

Even if the goal ends up being just to reach out to a wider audience, she says, “you’re going to meet people who are hostile…and there are others who are misinformed or have reason to disagree. beware”.

His 6-year project, co-sponsored by the Reynolds Institute at the University of Missouri and the American Press Institute, embarked on a series of experiments under the banner of “the path to pluralism.” It was tested by AB, for example – as the Reuters report recommends – whether explicit links to a mission statement make a piece of content more believable.

The Reuters report notes that the hostile attacks by some politicians against “the media”, so prevalent here, are also a huge problem for the Brazilian and Indian editors who took part in the study. The level of hostility toward journalists and their organizations, as well as echo chambers for animosity and misinformation, has instilled a somber mood among many journalists, the report said.

This suggests no easy solution, but I agree with the Reuters authors that now is not the time to give up on identifying persuasive audience segments and a sustained effort to earn their trust. And for the sake of realism, as Nielsen suggested, on the status of the outlets.

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