Trust in media can be addressed with control, transparency, communication

By Emmanuel Naert


Brussels, Belgium


In the latest Reuters News Report, the issue of trust in news media is a leading topic.

As a Belgian, I quickly scrolled to page 73 to find the score of my beloved employer, De Standaard. Our score is 7.07 out of 10, ranking sixth in the list. Public television is at the top of the list. Last year, we were at 7.24. Overall, trust has dropped from 62% to 55%.

Readers' trust in De Standaard has decreased, just as it has in other news media companies.
Readers' trust in De Standaard has decreased, just as it has in other news media companies.

I know it’s just a stupid poll on a very general question. But trust is also a dominant and complex problem in the marketing of media, and the industry as a whole doesn’t seem to have magic solutions to solve it.

I’ve been following the topic a bit, and one of the most inspiring texts I found about it was Katharine Viner’s Mission for Journalism. She’s led The Guardian since 2017 and conceived the successful “support us” model. Her thoughts on trust take us back to 1819, when The Guardian’s founding father, John Edward Taylor, witnessed the bloody charge of the yeomanry in a crowd protesting for social reform in Manchester.

To accurately report on the massacre, Taylor got onto a night coach to London, got the story into the Times newspaper, and turned the Manchester demonstration into a national scandal. He defended the powerless and held those in power to account. With this report, he lay the first stone of what was to become The Manchester Guardian (and later The Guardian). He also demonstrated that his work was to fight injustice and that he was a trustworthy journalist. Kudos to John Edward Taylor!

Two-hundred years later, we are still playing the same game. There are still Taylors among us, and, from time to time, they astonish us with their revealing journalism. But they are no longer trusted. Why is that?

Some say it is the lack of diversity that causes distrust. News rooms are staffed by highly educated, white, urban journalists. As Viner says, “They are mainly drawn from the same privileged sector of society.” Being what they are, can they not empathise with the gilet jaune protesters who can’t put up the pay for their fuel if our companies provide a paid for fuel card to every journalist? Are they living close enough to the subject of their writing? When they are writing about expensive ecological solutions related to house heating, do they bear in mind that one in six households can’t even pay their monthly energy bill? When posting a blog on healthy cooking, are they considering the single mom who hasn’t the means to offer more than minced meat to her kids?

She’s not top-of-mind when we write about opera, solar panels, and the exquisite pairing of bulgur with avocado and a white wine from Piemont. She’s probably not our target audience either.

News media companies need to take proactive steps to establish — and re-establish — trust with their readers.
News media companies need to take proactive steps to establish — and re-establish — trust with their readers.

Another challenge to trust is the rising pressure of commercial targets. The argument is that, in our hunt for clicks, editors have become masters of clickbait rather than promotors of journalism. To build as much Web traffic as possible, articles are wrapped in catchy phrases. Provocative opinion, trending quotes, and sensational news in front; nuance and analysis in the back.

And we are inveterate spammers: In one day De Standaard sends out two million newsletters, 25 posts on Facebook, and five push notifications in the news app. People might start getting a bit suspicious. Do you have the feeling you’re being treated as a privileged visitor when you go to your news Web site? Not every newsletter my news brand sends gives me the idea that what we are doing is stimulating trust.

There are also a couple of well-known guys around who publicly voice their opinions on the media and who should at least have an impact on the electorate. In Turkey, China, Hungary, Hong Kong, and the United States, the most powerful people are “exploiting the distrust of the media,” as Viner explains. “Powerful interests are on the march against free speech.”

In Flanders, too, the relationship between media and politics has been warmer. Since last month’s election victory of the extreme right, the outlook doesn’t seem more cordial.

I’m not entirely sure about the importance of each of these causes in terms of trust, and there must be great variation by country and by news brand. But I’m pretty sure on a couple of solutions when it comes to working on trust.

Within my news organisation, I observe three key elements: control over the journalistic practice, transparency, and communication with the reader.

Control: Every prominent article that appears is being analysed by a fact checker. He looks for inconsistencies, weak argumentation, and factual errors. He can summon journalists to provide sources and proof and ask for original quotes.

When a journalist is in doubt, he can also refer to experts on the ground and get in touch with them. A fact checker gives rigidity in the journalistic practice. This makes journalism much less vulnerable to outside criticism.

Transparency: A second profile on the news floor is the “counselor.” At De Standaard, she is the person readers turn to with their questions and complaints on various newspaper topics such as diversity, our commercial policy, political correctness, and ideological tendencies.

Every week she writes a column on a topic she found relevant enough to share with the entire audience of De Standaard. Often, errors made at the newspaper and our colleagues are exposed and publicly admitted.

Communication: It creates trust when you communicate what you’re doing for the reader and why something was done a certain way. I really like the Year Report of NRC. Together with the financial statement, the united department heads give their view on the journalistic realisations from the year. They highlight what good has been done over the year and what content they accounted for.

This year’s edition opened with “Why it’s important to give voice to ordinary people.” Laura Wismans, head of the “Life” section at NRC, gave the example of a feature following children of divorced parents who have to commute a lot to see their parents every other week. In the Netherlands, there are hundreds of thousands of kids in this situation. Telling their story offered recognition, inspiration, and new insights. This is more impactful than giving just the numbers or reporting on judicial cases. Wismans generates trust by explaining what she did and sharing her point of view.

For five years NRC has published such an annual report, which is distributed to all subscribers. This kind of effort reminds subscribers of the news room’s achievements and must have an impact on readers’ attitudes.

Another great example of trust-generating communication is Helsingin Sanomat’s topical stunt when Donald Trump met with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. The news brand responded to its perpetual allegations on news media by putting posters in English and Russian of the leaders’ itinerary through Helsinki that stated “Welcome to the country of free speech.” (Last month, Helsingin Sanomat won the top prize at INMA’s Global Media Awards for the initiative.)

Demonstrating your social purpose in this way must create extra trust points with readers.

If we could create awareness of these efforts just a bit more with audiences, we should be better able to face this trust issue. It just takes some care and time.

About Emmanuel Naert

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