Is there a trust crisis outside of U.S. media?

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Trust — how to defend it or regain it — is a central theme in the INMA Newsroom Initiative. We devoted one of the pillars of the project to the combined topics of trust and quality, and it was a big part of the master class with which we launched the initiative in March.

Often it seems we are in a crisis of trust, with audiences disbelieving even the most solid news services with the strongest ethical frameworks and journalistic skills. It’s also apparent that trust in news correlates closely with trust in politicians and the whole business of politics.

But how bad are things, really, and is a crisis of trust general or worse in some places? 

Patrick Crewdson, the editor-in-chief of New Zealand news site — the largest in the country and built on a network of regional newspapers — wanted to test the assumptions about trust and see whether the presumed crisis applied to his market.

Crewdson used a fellowship at Wolfson College at Cambridge University to produce a sort of meta-analysis on trust in journalism, referring to established work such as the annual trust report of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, but also taking the temperature himself of different markets away from the noise and partisanship of the United States.

His conclusions? It may not be as bad as we have told ourselves; we may never have been trusted as much as we think we were; and trust and the loss of it are not evenly distributed.

I asked Patrick about the project and his findings and how he will try to apply what he’s learned to his day job running one of his country’s most important news outlets, whose proprietor has based her business model on engaging with audiences and advertisers on the basis of trust.

“I was really interested in the prevailing idea that there’s a crisis of trust,” Patrick told me in the interview. “I wanted to get a dig into that and find out why — not just from a newsroom, from an editor or a journalist’s point of view, but about deeper reasons in society. I also wanted to look at it from the point of view of what newsrooms, what journalists, what newsrooms, what the industry as a whole, could potentially do about it.”

Patrick told me he was also influenced by the work of Oxford academic Rachel Botsman, who has studied trust and trustworthiness and talks of four traits needed to establish trust: competence, reliability, integrity, and benevolence. Without targeting those attributes, Patrick believes, media companies may not create the climate of genuine trust they seek.

He also recommends the media industry takes five actions:

Here’s the interview, presented in Q&A format so you can digest the nuggets directly from Patrick. The interview is edited for brevity and clarity.

INMA: Not to jump straight to the end of your analysis with a spoiler, but it seems that your conclusion is that the alleged crisis in trust is unevenly spread.

Patrick Crewdson: Yes, I am much less convinced there is a widespread crisis of trust that has somehow gotten worse. There absolutely is [a crisis] in America. There’s a tendency in other English-speaking countries to see the U.S. as representative of media trends because it’s so central to so much of the discourse about journalism. But for many reasons, the U.S. is an outlier. It’s not representative. It’s a unique case, and that’s definitely the situation with trust.

INMA: That’s backed up, as you say in your paper on this, by the RISJ work that puts the United States 47th among the 47 countries surveyed in its trust analysis and with the biggest fall over time, so say a bit more about those unique factors.

The United States is last in global media trust levels.
The United States is last in global media trust levels.

Patrick Crewdson: It’s possible that what happens in the U.S. is a harbinger of what’s to come elsewhere. But I don’t think that’s a fait accompli, and I don’t think that trends are necessarily seen with the same impact or severity elsewhere.

INMA: What are the implications for the climate in other markets?

Patrick Crewdson: The distinction I’ve been drawing is that in many countries — New Zealand being the one that I focused the most attention on — there isn't necessarily a crisis of trust, defining a crisis as a rapid and negative change in circumstances. 

Trust is low, but it's been low for a long time. It’s still a critical issue because nobody wants trust to be that low, but it’s not necessarily a crisis. I think that’s a meaningful distinction because it influences the attitude you take towards the problem.

If you think of it as a crisis and you say, “We used to be really trusted and now we’re not,” that leads to an attitude of entitlement where you think you deserve to be trusted and that you once were — and the thought is that there is something we can restore.

INMA: You reckon there was no golden age of trust?

Patrick Crewdson: I think that instead of trying to restore lost golden days, it needs to be an approach where you think about what it is to be trustworthy; we need to better establish this relationship and maintain it rather than turn back the clock in some way.

INMA: How is that finding relevant to your business model and market?

Patrick Crewdson: One of the ways in which New Zealand has better conditions for addressing trust than some other Anglophone countries is that there are factors that have fed into the perception of media as elite and isolated in the U.S and the UK that are less pronounced here. 

I think in New Zealand, our newsrooms are still too homogenous. But to a much greater extent than in other countries, we still exist in the communities that we’re covering with those tighter links at the local level. We are part of communities. … It’s also about conscious efforts by media companies to be more diverse and representative.

INMA: With something like 40 newspapers and more than 150 years of history in some of those towns, Stuff journalists are presumably relatively well placed to counter the idea they are some sort of elite from a remote capital. Yes?

Patrick Crewdson: I think that it’s a strength for Stuff that we are that dispersed and in many communities because one of the reasons that people tend to cite for not trusting journalists or journalism is that they don’t know them. They have an image or a perception of what a journalist is, which is often not aligned with reality.

INMA: Stuff recently took a symbolic step to reinforce that with a new Wellington office at street level, with windows and public areas that expose the newsroom to the passing citizens.

Patrick Crewdson: The more active you are in your community, the more connected you are, the more you’re meeting people and they’re making those trust judgments or relationships based on familiar faces. That’s an advantage broadcasters have had, and that in New Zealand keeps them high in the trust rankings — that news comes from recognisable personalities.

INMA: Your analysis of some of the factors behind trust also suggests the need for a much greater distinction, visually and in tone, between reporting and commentary.

Patrick Crewdson: Every media organisation has to take a hard look at what they do with opinion and commentary. If enhancing trust is the goal, then maybe it’s necessary to engineer a much greater division or separation between impartial news content and opinion content. 

We have to take a really close look at the way we report and edit stories to ensure that they are actually impartial, rather than influenced by an editorial line. We need to understand more from our audiences about why they sometimes believe that news coverage isn’t impartial.

INMA: How have your colleagues and leadership responded to your ideas on trust?

Patrick Crewdson: Someone asked me, “What’s the low-hanging fruit? What are the quick wins?” My answer was that unfortunately, I think when it comes to making meaningful gains on trust, the significant things aren’t quick or easy. 

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About Peter Bale

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