Talking about trust in journalism.

Trust in journalism is in a catastrophic decline. It is about time we changed that.

Ellie Munford
8 min readJan 5, 2021

Propaganda, click-bait and conspiracy theories: the world wide web is awash with unreliable content and it has resulted in a complete breakdown of trust between news outlets and audiences. In the age of digital journalism it is easier than ever for your average Joe to take to his keyboard and write a story with no real research or duty to the truth. As I have mentioned in my previous blog posts, a journalist that writes with their own flare and style tends to attract a higher readership, but this kind of writing favours individual and subjective content. This places great responsibility on readers to discern for themselves the difference between what can be trusted as factual and what represents the reporter’s own judgement.

Traditionally, there is the idea that a news publisher is seen as objective and neutral from the get go but sadly, this is no longer the case. While news organisations have gone to the trouble of opening up their reporting process to provide readers with a range of fact-checking services, it seems there is still some work to be done on distinguishing their journalism from the mass of information available on platforms like twitter, and these also don’t account for political biases and hidden agendas.

Why don’t people trust journalists?

There seems to be a feeling of conspiracy between conservative politicians and media owners who push stories that suit their political agenda. Issues of media ownership and the journalistic elite mixing with the prominent politicians they report on contributes to a widespread distrust of the news media.

For example, The Spectator is a predominantly conservative political magazine (also online) whose political editor is a man named James Forsyth. If you do some digging, you will find that he was married to Allegra Stratton, former journalist, and now the prime minister’s press secretary. Connections like these are known to those within the elite bubble but never explicitly declared in public. Contextual information such as this is vital for readers in order for them to orient themselves when they read someone’s article; opinion piece or otherwise.

I suggest: Next time you’re reading an article do a google search on the author or have a look at the media outlet’s sponsors and directors. You might stumble across some connections that could alter your perspective and nowadays, politicians especially are a lot more brazen than they used to be!

Another reason for distrust could stem from the news media exaggerating stories to create something that sells. Digital advertising has become a hugely successful business model for media companies which depend on generating a maximum number of clicks. Because of this, news stories are headlined in such a way that grabs reader attention so that they click on the story to read it, only to find that the story is not at all what they thought it to be thus the term ‘clickbait’ is used.

I suggest: Checking the spelling and grammar is usually a key indicator of the quality of an article and if it sounds like it’s too good to be true, it probably is…

An example of clickbait.

Perhaps it could even have something to do with news media’s mounting pressure to compete with the speed of online media. As a consequence the quality of journalism falls as they grapple to publish a story, whatever that story may be. This relates to questions surrounding the ethical standards of journalists who publish certain stories found in red top tabloids.

I suggest: Whilst reading tabloid stories of celebrities is rarely harmful, consider that what you are reading could be sourced unethically or that it could be really damaging to the health and safety of the story’s subject. The media attention surrounding Caroline Flack is particularly evident on this point.

What about social media as a source of news?

Most social media sites do not claim to separate fact from fiction unlike news media outlets, yet despite this we have a seen a dramatic global increase in the proportion of people that say they use social media for news over the years, although even this is now in decline:

Credit: Ofcom

We can see from the infographic above that 45% of UK adults do use social media as a source of news. To reiterate, thats still almost half of the UK! However, just because they use it, doesn’t mean they trust it. Only 35% of Brits surveyed said that they trusted the social media platforms they use to consume news.

In Nieman Lab’s predicitons for 2021, Tanya Cordrey wrote about the decline of trust in journalism:

Publishers must face that many users believe there’s been a blurring of fact and opinion. Whether that’s true or not, that is the perception. And we’ve reached a tipping point where too many news consumers are now uncomfortable. This is not a sudden trend. It’s happened over many years, likely accelerated by the clickworthy nature of opinion articles that have deluged social media far more widely than traditional news articles.

Many people feel that the news information obtained from social media sites is often low quality or unreliable and lacks a certain specificity due to the mass of information available. Since much of the content available comes direct from personal accounts (although not all), it makes sense that one comes into regular contact with opinions and personal perspectives on events as opposed to the supposedly objective and neutral information from news outlets. Who knows who these people are and how qualified are they to pass comment or even judgement? Social media platforms often encourage you to write about how you are feeling or what’s on your mind. These types of questions actively encourage subjective and emotional responses which means that the content seen on social media hasn’t gone through the same amount of effort, thought or research as a journalist would subject their own work to.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

As a result of a lack of editorial control, the scale and speed of posts is able to accelerate on social media pages which encourages interactions and responses from their audiences. Social media platforms also rely on an algorithm to make procedural decisions which can sometimes be manipulated by powerful organisations to promote their own agenda to create superficially popular content. The consequence of a post being hugely popular online is known as ‘virality’. Viral posts often the place of objective information which can help users differentiate fact from fiction thus they are often left disorientated or overwhelmed with a mass of contradictory information.

I suggest: Be wary of what you read online. Ask questions and commit to further reading. I often find the comments or the replies section to be particularly useful in helping me form my own opinions on an article. It is also helpful to be confronted with opinions and perspectives that are different from your own. You don’t have to agree, but it’s important to burst your own filter bubble regularly!

How can trust be rebuilt?

Given the speed and scope of the changing news media world, it comes as no surprise that trust in journalism has taken a hit. Digital and social media have the capacity to provide a multitude of new perspectives and ideas as well as the ability to communicate and discuss news from across the globe. Despite many feeling as though they cannot trust this form of news, you have to argue the point that we are better informed and have access to a vast range of sources because of it. It is feasible that a decline in trust is inevitable if we want to enjoy a wider variety of news and increased opportunities to participate.

“Perhaps we need to consider discounting some trust in favour of scepticism and a focus on news literacy” — Richard Fletcher and Nic Newman

The challenge for media companies is to cut through the mass of information available to distinguish their identity. It is about making their individual journalistic processes more accessible to audiences so that they can clearly see the standards and verification that sources must go through before they make it into news articles. If news media outlets have a particular political stance or have close ties to certain powerful organisations, they should make this clear so that their audience is aware and don’t feel like they are being blindsided

Adam Tinworth, author of his very successful journalism blog called ‘One Man & His Blog’ suggests that “distance breeds contempt”. There has been a centralisation of local journalists in cities which means that fewer people have the opportunity to learn to trust them and instead they are seen running in tight circles with the political elite. He argues that there aren’t enough journalists reaching out to establish relationships with the public they report on — and for.

Social media and tech platforms must do more to tackle the spread of misinformation by its users. Platforms should identify and eradicate ‘bots’ or domains that are automated to spew false information in support of a political or personal agenda. This involves working with fact-checkers to clarify disputed claims and identify to users that what they are reading may not be accurate so that they can investigate for themselves.

There are also projects like the News Integrity Initiative (NII) which was launched in 2017 to educate users on media literacy and encourage trust in journalism. They aim to build trust between the newsrooms and the public, promote diversity and increase representative journalism coverage of communities, as well as getting the public to understand media manipulation.

Initiatives like this are in the public’s interest to build trust between audiences and the journalistic structures that serve them. They say that trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback and it will be a long process that requires dedication and commitment from everyone within the sphere of journalism for years to come. Hopefully the very existence of such projects shows an awareness for the current situation journalism finds itself in and a focus on something more fundamentally rooted in establishing trust is a positive step forwards.

Bring on 2021!

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Ellie Munford

Blogger | Conversationalist | Feminist | Digital journalism should be your primary source of news — Change my mind?