Let's talk about trust in journalism

All the indicators are pointing at one thing: trust in journalism is in catastrophic decline. 2021 has to be the year where we reverse that.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

As things slow down on the training and consulting side in the run-up to Christmas, I've been putting a lot of thought into where to take this blog next year. There are three themes that have leapt out at me: trust, tech and technique, as I mentioned on Tuesday.

I'll come back to tech later — I'm not interested in the same sort of platforms coverage that everyone is doing, but more in how the tools we use shape journalism. But trust is uppermost in my mind right now: so many of the challenges we face in communications businesses are wrapped up in trust issues. And trust issues are, in turn, deeply wrapped up in journalistic technique issues.

I'm clearly not alone in this. As part of Nieman Lab's annual jamboree of predictions, Tanya Cordrey wrote about the slow, but quite significant, decline in trust in journalism:

News publishers ignore this decline in trust at their peril. The idea that a news publisher should be seen as unbiased and neutral automatically is no longer the case. We have reached a tipping point where the first news organizations will begin to tackle the decline in trust overtly.

The crisis is significant enough that the Reuters Institute is devoting research time to the issue, and came up with some quite concerning findings:

There is no single ‘trust in news’ problem, but rather multiple challenges involving both the supply of news and demand for information. Different segments of the public, as well as journalists and researchers, hold different beliefs about how journalism works and sometimes conflicting views about what they expect from it.

Sometimes, you can blow trust in a big way, like misleading your crowd-funding supporters, and thus turning your biggest advocates into betrayed critics. And sometimes you can blow it slowly and progressively over time.

However, there's also a lack of attention to the detail of standards and disclosures, which is fine, until it suddenly isn't. You become aware of an undisclosed conflict-of-interest and it changes your perception of a title's trustworthiness from then on.

The Spectator, not A Disclosure

For example, I started reading The Spectator back in 2016, when the Brexit vote made it clear to me that I didn't really understand the politics of the right in the UK. The magazine and its website seemed like a useful way of popping my own little filter bubble.

In the four years or so I've been a regular reader, I gained no idea that their political editor James Forysth (also a Times columnist), was married to Allegra Stratton, former journalist, and now the prime minister's press secretary.

It was only when I started researching her that I stumbled across this fact. And then, in a rare burst of synchronicity, I stumbled across this by Mic Wright:

That’s why James Forsyth, political editor of The Spectator — the magazine which used to be edited by the Prime Minister — writes columns about that Prime Minister while his wife, Allegra Stratton, works as the PM’s official spokesman, and his best man — a school friend, and godfather to his children — is Chancellor of the Exchequer. These connections are known to those within the bubble but never — as would be the case in US journalism — explicitly declared under the author’s byline.

Four years of reading (and listening) to Forsyth talking about politics — and never once were those relationships declared. It's vital contextual information to understand his emotional connections and relationships — especially when he's writing opinion pieces rather than straight reporting.

(If I'd been a Tatler reader, I'd have learnt all this much earlier.)

Yet, Forsyth is all over the national press, with nary a declaration of these personal connections. Now, he's a professional. He could — and probably would — claim that he can separate his personal relationships from his work. But the lack of disclosure seeds mistrust, if you have to find out about it in other ways. And, I note, that The Spectator's festive interview with his buddy the Chancellor was not conducted by him.

So, at one level we have a journalistic elite moving in tight social circles with the politicans they report on. For most people, though, this is almost politics and journalism as soap opera. How often do they meet the journalists in question?

The worrying thing is that they're more likely to have met their local MP, particualrly at election time, than they are any TV journalists. And even local journalists are thin on the ground. I've met my MP, Tim Loughton, multiple times. I've yet to meet a single journalist from the Shoreham Herald.

Distance breeds contempt

Most people reading this will know many journalists, because they work in journalism, PR or marketing in some way. But how many people outside our world actually know any journalists? I can't think of any in my personal social circle that I didn't meet through my work in some way. I only met working journalists once or twice in my childhood — when I was photographed with my Mum and brother in a paddling pool for a Manchester local paper during the 1976 heatwave, and then a few years later when I was photographed photographing the chief scout:

A young Cub Scout taking a photo of the Chief Scout in the 1980s in Scotland.
A local newspaper photo of me when I was a Cub taking a photo of the Chief Scout. 

The catastrophic decline of local journalism, and the centralisation of local journalists in larger regional cities, means that fewer and fewer people ever meet a working journalist. They have no opportunity to learn to trust them, to know them as individuals. Instead, they perceive journalists through the filter of the national newspaper and TV elite, with their cosy relationships with politicians, and their London-centric lifestyles.

The trade magazine sector has, in the past, also been a useful route to building trust. I was lucky enough to have a job in the late 90s that involved me travelling to different parts of the country, and profiling the commercial property markets there. Quite often, I was the very first journalist some regional property specialists had ever met, and sometimes had to put them at their ease, as they were quite visibly nervous. But, if I treated them fairly, a relationship would build.

That job, as with so many others, is long gone.

Rebuilding trust from the ground up

So, any attempt to rebuild trust in journalism can't just be a top-down effort. We need more journalists on the ground, interacting with real people in a fair and honest way. That's why startups like nub.news are so interesting to me, because they put a named journalist or two into the individual towns they cover, reconnecting reporters with local people, and hopefully building up trust. In the US we now have the Tiny News Collective trying to build the same sorts of relationships.

The pandemic has taught us we can work from home. The next step, as vaccination loosens regulation, should be getting journalists working remotely — wherever their audience are. It always baffled me that, for example, Farmers Weekly journalists spent so much time in an office block in suburban Sutton, and not out amongst their audience. With a laptop and a phone, journalists can work anywhere, and the more time they spend interacting with people, and the less time they spend in an office, the better.

Obviously, that doens't apply to all journalists. Data journalism, for example, is very much a desk-based pursuit. But, for the rest of us, we should spend less time in the company of our peers, and more time in the company of people we are reporting on — and for.

Re-engaging the audience

Digitally, we need to start making the words “audience engagement” mean more than just “audience growth”. We can connect with more people more quickly online than we can do in person, but that means committing to real interaction and dialogue, and not just promotion of content. The work of the good folks at the Engaged Journalism Accelerator is an excellent starting point here.

Tanya's piece that I mentioned earlier also has some intriguing suggestions:

So, in 2021, a handful of publishers will likely look at their roadmap and dedicate a certain percentage of tech and product team resources to build, test, and learn about trust: How it is won, lost, and perceived.
This will not be a one-off project but instead the creation of a permanent product and tech Trust teams. Just as almost all sizeable publishers today have audience teams, almost all will have trust teams and trust dashboards within five years.

She goes on to acknowledge that this is not just a product and tech issue — it so very clearly isn't  — but an editorial one, too. But her suggestion is important. For trust to matter, for trust to grow, it has to be central in what we do. We need to have some measure of it, we need to build it into how we appraise our work — and how we reward our managers. And yes, tech can help with that process. We're going to need all the help we can get.

The clickbait bill is coming due

For years we've got away with abusing trust, with playing fast and loose with our sources, our suaidnece and our stories, and the price for that is coming due. No, it's not been all of us. It's never been all of us.

But it's been enough of us.

From the worst excesses of tabloid journalism in the print era, to the appalling, unethical churnalism of the clickbait era, we've too often squandered trust on the altar of circulation and profits. This was short term gain, for deep long term pain.

Those actions are both undermining our future profitability, but also opening the door for new competition. We opened up the way for the hyper-partisan websites, and the pure misinformation vendors. It's so much cheaper and easier to produce a site by aping the appearance of traditional media, without actually doing any journalistic research. And when people don't trust the “MSM” (mainstream media), then the psychological weaknesses we all share mean that we're likely to put our faith in sites that reinforce our own prejudices.

And that should remind us of yet another challenge: the intentional misinformation merchants. People are actively trying to subvert trust in journalism, so they can promote their own messages instead. This is true from political parties to state-sponsored misinformation operations.

We might have helped start erode the trust in journalism, but many people are quite happy to help that process along.

Trust as a principle, not a team

This isn't going to be the job of a trust team. This needs to be everybody's job. There's an exact parallel with audience engagement here. A team like that should be the centre of expertise, not the sole practiotioners of audience engagement. Indeed, I suspect that any trsut intiatives will be born out of the audience teams — they're the ones already working on the coalface of this mine.

Just as we've seen audience engagement grow into something more sophisticated than just a mix of social media and SEO, so too can we see the smartest, sharpest outlets evolve that thinking towards something more fundamentally rooted in building trust between us and our audience.

How that for a challenge for 2021?

trustaudience engagement

Adam Tinworth Twitter

Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.