Fewer people than ever trust the national titles – but the pandemic has also provided newspapers with an opportunity to prove they’re on the public’s side. Chris Sutcliffe rounds up the year in trust as part of our  report.

We include a section on trust in the media every year. It’s as much a financial consideration as a moral one: as a rising tide floats all boats, falling trust in the media as a whole has the potential to sink some of our longest-running organisations permanently. There are other sources of information (or misinformation as the case may be) available for free online, and if previously loyal readers decamp to those free sources then the financial support for legacy titles is kicked away.

2020 has been a year of political campaigning in the UK, Europe and the US. That’s brought intense scrutiny of the press, with accusations of bias being especially ferocious. In turn, segments of the industry have leaned into the factional nature of the discourse, making their opposition to other parties the central column of their marketing strategies.

The result? The public is being explicitly told to distrust most of the press, and only believe in the outlets they happen to be aligned with. But there is also considerable impetus to use the pandemic as an opportunity to bring readers back into the fold. 

What happened in 2020?

At the beginning of 2020 the public were sandwiched between the end of the 2019 UK election and the beginning of the campaigning season for the 2020 US election, in addition to many other political flashpoints worldwide. Consequently there was more than the average amount of assertions, counter-assertions and counter-counter-assertions appearing in the press. Trust – here meaning ‘who you choose to believe’ – was at a premium.

That was the case in scattered pockets globally as well. People chose to support and ‘trust’ the outlets that happened to publish content in line with their preconceived notions. A fascinating case study from Finland demonstrated that the objective facts of the matter were barely material; identity politics dictated the levels of ‘trust’ in specific outlets

Consequently at the beginning of the pandemic, the Reuters Digital News Report said overall levels of trust in the news across 40 countries were at the lowest point since it had begun to track the data. Horrifically, only 38% of respondents said they trust news overall.

“As our world has changed dramatically, having trusted, reliable sources of information, particularly at a time when there are so many sources competing for our attention, is vital.”

Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom

The pandemic offered media reporters a fascinating opportunity to study the epidemiology of viral misinformation in real time. Countless articles have been written about the parallel pandemic of false information, with thousands of words given over to examining the role of social media in spreading it.

The BBC’s specialist disinformation reporter Marianna Spring told us: “With what we’ve been doing in the BBC’s anti-disinformation team, that’s involved a combination of exposing and investigating disinformation, humanising it so that people are interested in the stories we have to tell and want to read them.

“But it’s also about social media literacy, trying to reach as many people as we can to inform them about how they can stop and spot misinformation, and stop its spread.”

At the beginning of October, Queen Elizabeth II stressed a need for trusted local news sources, stating: “having trusted, reliable sources of information, particularly at a time when there are so many sources competing for our attention, is vital.” The speech opened the News Media Association’s ‘Journalism Matters’ campaign, and was immediately followed by the NMA chairman Henry Faure Walker placing the blame for the misinformation pandemic squarely at the feet of social media.

As a corollary, it also offered media twitchers the ability to examine the role of traditional media during a time of crisis, and the public’s fluctuating trust in those outlets. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found there was evidence of a ‘rally round’ effect, both for government and journalism, in which trust in both estates was relatively high.

However, a subsequent study a scant few months down the line found that trust had eroded again, reverting to the mean. Less than half (45%) of respondents rated news organisations as “relatively trustworthy sources of information” about the virus, down from 57% in April. 

Despite that, there were some valiant ongoing efforts over the course of the year to re-establish that trust. Outlets including The Atlantic and The Financial Times put significant chunks of their coronavirus coverage outside of their paywalls, with the FT continuing to publish its data journalism for free at the time of writing. 

This was both an effort to deliver on the promise of journalism to inform the public, and an effort to convert those readers to paying subscribers. The FT’s Roula Kahalaf used the announcement of free Covid-19 content to appeal to fly-by-night readers to support the paper. The Atlantic, despite having dropped its paywall, leveraged that free content to convert 36,000 subscribers over a four week period. Cynical as it sounds there is probably no way to gauge a person’s trust in something better than to see if they hand money over for it.

Where are we now?

The journalism industry is now grappling with fundamental changes in how it presents information to maximise trust. Whether that’s Byline Times’ aggressive campaign about the undue influence of other papers’ owners or the relabelling of Opinion columns to make it clear they are separate from the reliable news, the process is underway. As with previous years, trust is still an invaluable commodity for newspapers looking to build membership schemes.

At the same time social networks like Facebook – which as platforms have different priorities – are also pledging to tackle misinformation published on those platforms (though we’ve heard that before). Per the Digital News Report, less than a quarter of people trust news they’ve spotted on social media, suggesting there is still a role for the traditional gatekeepers – newspapers and broadcasters – to play a role in informing the public. What is less clear is if the likely return of the pandemic in earnest in winter will lead to another ‘rally round’ effect, or (more likely) another dip in trust more generally. News avoidance in particular has risen since the pandemic began dominating the news agenda.

After the flashpoint of the US election, publishers can at least take solace from the fact that the most-engaged members of their audiences believed news sources did a good job explaining the election as it happened. Furthermore, 77% of respondents to the Pew Research Center survey believed that news sources did very or somewhat well at covering the results. Unsurprisingly for such a partisan election, Republicans were far less likely to believe their news sources did a good job, which the Pew research notes are in line with previous results. That all suggests that an anti-media sentiment is a popular strategy on the Right – and unlikely to go away any time soon.

“From March, we saw our traffic go through the roof because everything was changing, and nobody knew what was going on, and so the public was just really hungry to have experts not only explain the current moment, but to put it in context.”

Chris Waiting, Chief Executive, The Conversation UK

What will happen next year?

Partisanship and aggressively factional marketing strategies for outlets isn’t going away any time soon. Veteran BBC broadcaster Andrew Neil is leaving to set up GB News, which he has both claimed will and will not be like Fox News, the notoriously fact-averse right-wing channel. In doing so he is feeding the perception that the BBC is biased – a perception that both sides of the political spectrum hold.

Next year will also see more collaboration between fact-checkers and networks to curb misinformation. That’s going to be especially necessary as bad actors begin to fill the void left by local news cuts; partisan campaigning masquerading as fact-based reporting is on the rise and is likely to become acute in the very near future. As a result we expect to see some of the larger traditional publishers sign up to those efforts by fact-checkers, and more sharing of information.

Finally, Ipsos Mori released its latest roundup of overall trust in professions in late November. Journalists ranked fourth-lowest, marginally above politicians and advertising executives. However, the really depressing statistics are that while people aged 24-39 trust journalists more than older generations, that still only amounts to 28%. That figure has been very, very low as far as I can remember – but for an industry that prides itself on being trusted, that is a shockingly low number. Worse still, 77% of people under 25 said they did not trust journalists to tell the truth. Make no mistake, this is a slow, ongoing crisis.

This article is an extract from our Media Moments 2020 report. To see the case studies for this chapter and to read the full report, .

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