4 strategies news media organisations can use to build audience trust

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, Texas, USA

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I just can’t trust anything anymore.

This was a comment made by a respondent in research done by The Trust Project on the public’s trust in news media and journalism. Sally Lehrman, founder of The Trust Project and author of the recent INMA report “How News Brands Are Rebuilding Trust,” said that comment really struck home with her.

“I started The Trust Project around 2014 because of that problem, because we’ve seen trust decline for more than 15 years,” she told INMA members in a Webinar on Wednesday.

The Trust Project was founded in response to declining levels of public trust in news media.
The Trust Project was founded in response to declining levels of public trust in news media.

The decline in trust for news media coincided with the rise of digital news, and Lehrman attributed it to the way the Internet changed journalism.

“It appeared that our ethics were declining and that we were going down to the lowest common denominator on the Web,” she said of the rise in clickbait headlines, celebrity “journalism,” and the like.

“As a result people couldn’t tell the difference between journalism and everything else.”

Lehrman wanted to flip that picture and lift up authentic journalism. The Trust Project offers trust indicators for member news media organisations to demonstrate to the public that they are a trusted news source.

Newsroom members of The Trust Project around the world must meet eight trust indicators.
Newsroom members of The Trust Project around the world must meet eight trust indicators.

“You can imagine these trust indicators as our way as news organisations, as journalists, of reclaiming this central role that we have long had of guiding people to accurate information that can help them make decisions about their own lives, about their communities, and about their governments,” she said. “We have work to do, and now is the time. When people think about whether you’re trustworthy, they think of your agenda.”

This includes who the journalists are, diverse perspectives, transparency about what they are looking at (news vs. opinion, for example), transparency about sources, and a high expectation of being allowed to participate.

“We can go in and help ease the public’s anxiety about information by responding to these elements,” she said.

Another role is to provide the Big Tech platforms with machine-readable signals that can help them guide the public to reliable, trusted news sources.

2021: A critical opportunity for news

The public’s trust in and need for journalism soared in 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic and need for accurate information. Nic Newman of Reuters said, “Journalism matters and is in demand again.”

This represented the greatest trust gains for traditional and owned news media, Lehrman said, with trust in news sources at an all-time high in the spring of 2020. However, that trust plummeted again in the fall, around the time of the U.S. presidential election, as the public felt news organisations were more concerned with supporting an political position rather than informing.

Lehrman noted that the way journalists responded in the early days of the pandemic was important: Instead of explaining how the world works to their audience, the attitude was more one of “we’re in this together,” and embracing their role as part of the community along with their readers.

“We were all trying to understand, and yes journalists were leading the way, but not apart from the community. I think that’s an important distinction we need to think about — the way we were relating to and engaging with the public at that time.”

This year presents an opportunity for news organisations and journalists to regain that trust. News helps people achieve vital personal goals. And if the media can help people with these needs, they are in a position to be trusted:

  • Orientate: What’s happening and how do I fit in?
  • Survive: How do I stay safe, avoid danger, and avoid setbacks?
  • Escape: Help me break free of my day-to-day.
  • Connect: Help me understand and communicate with others.
  • Calibrate: Help me learn the importance of external events and how others see them.
  • Thrive: Help me achieve success and set a good path for the future.

“With this sort of fluctuation, there’s opportunity,” Lehrman said, adding that 27% of people are willing to pay for news they could trust and 82% of people actively seek out trustworthy news.

“This is an opportunity for us because we can help people understand better how to spot false information.”

User wants and needs

In research and user surveys conducted by The Trust Project several years ago, different types of news media users were identified, with different wants and need from it.

The Trust Project research identified several types of news users, with differing needs for each.
The Trust Project research identified several types of news users, with differing needs for each.

The Trust Project went back to those same users recently and found every single type of user had become more engaged with the news.

  • The avid user moved to taking action on the news they consumed.
  • The engaged user became more of an avid user.
  • The opportunistic user became more informed and internally engaged.
  • The disengaged user became more engaged — however, generally they became engaged with untrustworthy news sources.

“In this research what we found was increased engagement, strong emotion attached to the news, and diverse voices,” Lehrman said. One of the most common emotions reported was that of being overwhelmed, emotionally exhausted, and searching for more diversity.

Four strategies for establishing trust with readers

So, knowing this information, what can news media organisations do to respond to this and increase their audience’s trust? Lehrman shared four suggested strategies:

  1. Acknowledge missteps (about a lack of diverse voices, for example).
  2. Double-down on ethics and accuracy, publish/disclose your ethics code.
  3. Explain who we are and what we do.
  4. Reach out and engage with the public.

She gave examples of news organisations that did this, such as Stuff and The Kansas City Star in acknowledging and apologising in coverage that could have been better.

Outreach from Stuff and The Kansas City Star demonstrate examples of transparency and admitting mistakes.
Outreach from Stuff and The Kansas City Star demonstrate examples of transparency and admitting mistakes.

“It’s not just statements, I want to highlight that,” she said. “Yes, an apology is a big thing, but now Stuff has a whole agenda set out to right these wrongs, and the same with The Kansas City Star.”

Next steps for news media organisations

“What I would recommend is think about establishing those best practices — and I say establish because you may really need to think about, what are your best practices,” Lehrman said. “Ensuring diverse voices, labelling [news from opinion], and engagement.”

About Shelley Seale

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