Bridging the Gap: Rebuilding Citizen Trust in Media

December 20, 2017

By Anya Schiffrin

At a time when trust in media and institutions has fallen in many parts of the world, journalists and scholars struggle to find ways to rebuild boost their credibility. Academic research on these subjects is inconclusive. It’s not clear to what extent trust in media depends on journalism practices or the prior beliefs of audiences. It’s also not clear how much difference local efforts can make in situations where there is little trust in government or politics more generally. As political scientists have written, it’s not clear whether “specific” trust can become “diffuse” trust. Further complicating the search for solutions is the fact that no two countries are the same. It’s very much like the famous Tolstoy quote about unhappy families each being different in their own way. In the US, Democrats trust the mainstream media and Republicans don’t. In Sweden there is enormous trust in state-owned television and radio but not in the Balkans.

Our new report, Bridging the Gap: Rebuilding Citizen Trust in Media profiles organizations in Europe, Latin America and Africa that are trying to build trust in the media. The report was commissioned by the Open Society Foundation’s Program on Independent Journalism and supported with a Dean’s Grant from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. We surveyed 17 media organizations that are working in their communities to come up with immediate fixes for this big problems of how to build credibility. They are on the frontlines—in polarized societies where media has traditionally been very partisan—and although the organizations' founders may think globally they are acting locally. Some believe that media credibility depends on engagement with readers. Others place more emphasis on journalism practices, including ethical standards or newsgathering practices.  But all the organizations are in frequent communication with their audiences, mostly using mobile technology.

Our interviewees included the nonprofit Center for Independent Journalism in Hungary, Južne Vesti and Krik in Serbia, Krautreporter and Correctiv in Germany, Bristol Cable in the UK, Ground Up in South Africa, Chequeado in Argentina and Raseef22 which provides news for audiences across the Arabic speaking world. Our report includes profiles of 15 organizations, a summary of our main survey findings, annotated bibliographies of efforts to promote media literacy and combat disinformation and a series of sidebars written by Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) advisory board member Ellen Hume examining past US debates about media objectivity and explaining how the situation has eroded so dramatically.

Explains Hume: “By the time the Internet destroyed the media monopolies, liberating captive audiences to choose their own favorite news streams, there was little interest left in nonpartisanship. Objectivity was the opposite of the current media culture of native advertising and targeted communication using captured data and selection algorithms. Popularity has become the most important professional measurement, overwhelming the earlier emphasis on expertise and verification. There is less incentive now to ask unpopular questions or research obscure topics that will not get advertisers clicks on the Internet. A challenge today is: How do you identify those who are trying to serve the public interest as relatively unbiased investigators? How do you make their methodology transparent and accountable, so that the public’s trust is earned? How do you get the public to recognize the difference between this kind of news and the propaganda that is overwhelming the Internet? “

The outlets we surveyed may well have lasting impact in their communities because they are training a new generation of journalists, opening up the kinds of subjects being covered and often getting national attention for their reporting. Whether their work can be scaled and whether it would be effective at scale is unclear. As Sheila Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism notes:

It takes so little effort and so few resources to manufacture fake news and disinformation. It is so cheap to make fake news and the return on investment can be significant. Engagement efforts by independent journalists, on the other hand, are expensive and time-consuming because they require investment in research, reporting, verification as well as publication, presentation and dissemination.

But as Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan noted in their recent report for the Council of Europe, Information Disorder: Towards an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making, part of the effort to build trust and credibility for mainstream media and fight disinformation campaigns, will involve creating a culture of truth. In their way, the organizations we profiled in Bridging the Gap are doing this and so they may contribute to larger efforts to ensure that informed debate and evidence-based discussion continues to have an effect on societies.

Some key survey findings from Bridging the Gap include:

  • Although the groups we surveyed are concerned by the broader phenomena of falling trust in media and media credibility, they are also, by necessity, focused on immediate fixes important to their organizations and readerships. Some believe that media credibility depends on engagement with readers. Some place more emphasis on journalism practices, including audience engagement, ethical standards and newsgathering practices.
  • The outlets we profiled use digital technology to communicate with audiences. Some also involve their readers in sourcing and sometimes verifying information. Some conduct focus groups and online surveys. Responding to comments online is part of their engagement efforts.
  • Their audiences are most likely to receive information on mobile phones, followed by laptops, print newspapers and radio. Stories are also seen when picked up by other sites and newspapers and shared widely though social media.
  • Comments are made online and are also submitted over email. Half of the outlets say they respond to comments online.
  • Some outlets and organizations make personal contact with their audiences. They go into the community, offer trainings and invite readers to contribute to their reporting. Some of our interviewees respond to trolls, but most say that they ignore them.
  • Most of the outlets hope to expand their geographic reach, coverage and activities, but few are financially self-sufficient or have the resources to do so.
  • The editors we spoke to say that their readers appreciate investigative reporting as well as stories that touch on their daily lives.
  • There seems to be a tradeoff between audience size and the quality of content produced. Some groups with large followings (Hivisasa and 263Chat) promote headlines and short snippets rather than carrying out deep investigative reporting. (This finding may be due to our small sample and not signify a broader trend. Raseef22 is one notable exception.)
  • Several groups said their audience is different from what their founders had originally expected. The reach of the outlets we surveyed is generally not as diverse as they had hoped. Their audiences tend to be educated and urban and, in some cases, include large diaspora communities.
  • The outlets largely cater to niche audiences, but they have broader reach through their online presence and national reach when their stories are picked up by legacy media or other outlets. Sometimes they are able to get on the national agenda (Bristol Cable and GroundUp among others).
  • Many of the organizations do not systematically measure their impact. Some monitor traffic, and one produces an “impact report.”
  • The groups likely provide tangible benefits in the long term because they are seeding the ground for future efforts and offering valuable work experience for the next generation of journalists in their countries.
  • As we saw in Publishing for Peanuts (our 2015 report on media startups for Open Society Foundations’ Program on Independent Journalism), the organizations we profiled believe that delivering accurate information is a way of gaining credibility in a world of diminishing trust. The organizations maintain that they demonstrate their trustworthiness by providing accurate, objective stories and adhering to strict standards.
  • Many organizations reported that further efforts are necessary to build trust with readers. Six of the sites said they reveal their funding sources and four discuss their ownership. Five show audiences how their newsrooms work. Fifteen of the organizations surveyed answer “yes” to the question “do people who know your organization trust it?” Nine say that their readers trust their outlet more than other outlets.
  • Ten of the organizations explain their story selection process to their readers and eight give them a voice in editorial or business decisions. Twelve said they have “used their readers’ knowledge or expertise when producing a story.”
  • When asked to choose which statement they agreed with the most, six picked the following sentence: “The key to a journalist’s credibility has always been telling the truth and that has not changed in the digital era.” Six agreed with the statement that “In the digital era, the key to a journalist’s credibility has changed. You have to tell the truth but you also need to actively convince your readers and society-at-large that you are trustworthy. To achieve this, you need to develop new ways of relating to the public.”
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