For our latest season of the Media Voices Podcast, kindly sponsored by Poool, we’ll be publishing ten episodes exploring the biggest trends of 2022 and how they affect publishers; from podcasts and newsletters to advertising, subscriptions, emerging technology and more. Our seventh episode looks at trust in the media, the growth of news fatigue and avoidance, and the opportunities and dangers in the future, from AI to platforms.

The year didn’t get off to a good start. The results of the latest Edelman trust survey showed that almost seven in 10 people worry that they are being lied to by journalists. Edelman’s Annual Trust Barometer for 2022 also found that trust in media had once again fallen across the world, with concern over fake news at an all-time high.

The release of Reuters’ Digital News Report 2022 in June only served to highlight how severe an issue this has become over the past five years. Its headline findings were that news fatigue and consequently avoidance were at an all-time high, with almost half of British people actively avoiding reading the news. This is feeding into a general distrust of news and the media, with just 1 in 4 people in the US trusting the news.

Is this a problem of publishers’ own making? Recent analysis published in PLoS ONE charted how negative headlines have grown over the past two decades. Emotionally-arousing and anger-inducing headlines attract more clicks and attention than positive and neutral headlines, creating a perverse incentive for news media to spread gloomy content.

So how can we break this cycle of negativity and declining trust? Will transparency in reporting help bring round reluctant or sceptical readers, or do we need to do more? Joining us this week to discuss the year in trust is Martha Williams, CEO of World Newsmedia Network.

Here are some highlights:

The biggest trends in media trust

Martha: There’s huge trends that we’ve seen now for the last many years that really focus on misinformation, disinformation, just fake news in general. And somehow the – I don’t want to say the ‘legitimate’ news media, but the traditional news media, including digital media – really gets lumped in with those that are the perpetrators of those horrible acts of information that are flooding the websites.

My main message about that is that we have to find a way to distance ourselves and I would say differentiate ourselves from those that perpetrate that kind of information that is consistently fake.

There was a huge report [Reuters] did on Trust in News that’s absolutely gold standard. It really shows us and reflects on how people are receiving this information, how they process it and how they compartmentalise – in some cases, news consumers don’t differentiate. So we have to make an effort to differentiate ourselves.

Esther: It was actually quite depressing doing the research for this – the fact that all this has got so much worse. It didn’t peak [in 2016] – it felt like it just started, and it was the start of this huge downward whirlpool. I genuinely don’t know where it ends.

There was a really good quote in this Edelman report which said that this was a vicious cycle of distrust that is threatening societal stability. They called it a ‘death grip’, where media is chasing clicks, government is chasing votes, and it feeds the cycle of disinformation and division, and exploits it for commercial and political gain. That has got significantly worse since 2016.

How to demonstrate neutrality

Martha: Transparency for sure is a good place to start. Some of those media companies will actually open up their newsrooms, they will have regular meetings with their readers…they will have nights with the writers to get people to get to know that there are human beings over here that are working, and also to bring them into the meetings where the decisions are made.

They’re being completely transparent about their operations. Because I think that there’s a real myth in the minds of people who have no idea how news is made that all kinds of conspiracy things happen in the decision-making process. They have no idea how it works. And we need to show them.

Esther: I hate to bring up Semafor here because it’s not an innovative format, I’ve seen other publishers doing this. But in the first few paragraphs they say, right, this is the facts of the story, this is what happened. Then they quite clearly label the analysis and hte personal interpretation of it. I think that clear labelling – and I’ve seen other publishers label things in similar ways where they’re saying, this is a fact, this is a study, this is our expert opinion on it.

Distinguishing between those two I think really helps people when they’re reading the news. They say, ‘OK, I can take or leave the analysis on it, but I’ve got the information I need.’

Chris: Am I misremembering or was there a news site that let you get the objective facts for free, but then you paid for the analysis and the personal take, or have I made that up? Have I just solved the whole thing?!

Solutions for news avoidance

Peter: Damian Radcliffe did some coverage of the Reuters Report for DCN where he focused on the solutions the report had suggested specifically for tackling news avoidance, but tied very much to trust. It was about making news accessible for ordinary people, not just news junkies. So that’s about giving more context, less acronyms, answering questions, highlighting opinion, and also mixing up formats and styles.

That idea that we’ve got explainers here that underlie what we’re doing on the actual reporting, then we’ve got these commentary pieces…mix stuff up, giving people different ways in.

I met [Tortoise co-founder] Katie Vanneck-Smith in Portugal at the FIPP Congress and she talked about what Tortoise was doing with audio. They had these long-form written pieces, and they realised people weren’t spending the length of time with them that it would take to read them, but audio they were spending the time. She described that as spinach and cheesecake. So much spinach in terms of really heavy, really dark commentary about what happened, then the cheesecake was giving people a different way in and making it a bit lighter.

So I think that for me is really what publishers can do. But I don’t think they can solve this problem. I think it’s an education problem that should start in primary school and go all the way through to seniors clubs in terms of media literacy. That’s a massive, massive problem.

This topic will be one of the chapters we explore in detail as part of our Media Moments 2022 report, launching on November 30th. Find out more and pre-register here to receive the report.

This season of Media Voices is sponsored by Poool, the Membership and Subscription Suite used by over 120 publishers from around the world. The team behind Poool are industry experts who have put everything they know into the product, ready to respond to your ‘how’ of launching & developing a reader revenue strategy. | @PooolTech

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