Why Trust Matters

How often do we think about trust in our daily lives? There are numerous occasions on which we unconsciously test some experience against the question: is this the right thing for me to do/buy/eat/believe? Sniffing food before eating it is an example of an unconscious trust test. Will this ice take my weight? Do I trust that driver to respect the pedestrian crossing before I step out? But it’s rarer for us to test consciously and deliberately whether we trust something.

One area where it does happen though, and often, is with the news. In print or on screen, we find ourselves challenging the veracity of news reports all the time. ‘Life on Mars!’ screams the headline. Really? Is that actually Kim Kardashian’s [insert body part here]? Do I believe in anonymous sources? Did somebody pay the newspaper to run this story? Can I trust the journalist, or the editor, or the proprietor to give me an honest report? Or do I not care whether the ‘news’ I see is true or not, just so long as it’s entertaining?

In Britain, we have a long history of independent journalism, although not as long as we like to think. The presence of august organisations such as the BBC, Reuters, or the FT, all of which we – and much of the world – instinctively trust to be unbiased, cements the feeling that we are protected rather than misled by the media.

Yet, as verified not only by the Reuters Institute research, but also our own Edelman Trust Barometer data, in Britain we do not actually trust the media overall. Even including those organisations of high reputation, the Barometer tells us that only 55% of Brits trust the traditional media (defined as broadcasters and newspapers, including their web offerings) to do the right thing. The Digital News Report offers a similar figure, showing trust levels at 50%.

This seems unimpressive, even worrying, but in fact the UK is about mid-table in terms of trusting the media, on the face of it. Dig down a little into the data, however, and another trend emerges: a disparity – perhaps unsurprising – between levels of trust based on the type of media.

This shows television news main bulletins score between 69% and 74% in the Edelman data (Edelman Trust Barometer 2016, UK supplementary research). At the other end of the scale, red-top newspapers score between 37% and 42%. Middle-market British papers scored between 46% and 55%, while what used to be called broadsheets are trusted, on average, by between 58% and 66% (Edelman Trust Barometer 2016, UK supplementary research).

These figures seem reasonable until one explanatory aspect is introduced: these are the trust figures for people who actually read those titles. Among those who are not paying customers, trust in the lower end of the market is in a range of 9% to 17%, in the mid-30s for mid-market, and mid-50s for the ‘heavies’ (Edelman Trust Barometer 2014, unpublished research). Accordingly, it’s tempting to assume that this is a recent phenomenon, provoked perhaps by the phone-hacking scandal of 2011 and a series of high-profile trials that followed in which journalists were cast in an unfavourable and disagreeable light. But that is not supported by research. Again, from two sources: our tracking data from before the time that phone-hacking hit the headlines shows trust levels in the media immediately after the scandal only three percentage points lower than in our most recent survey; and EU study from 2010 places UK newspapers rock bottom in a survey of 27 member nations when people were asked if they trusted newspapers to tell the truth. Britain’s press scored 18%, compared with an EU average of 43%. The next least trusted national newspaper industry, in Greece, recorded a trust level of 28%.

Of course, to some extent this is a global issue. The wider news spreads, the more it gets questioned. The more information people are exposed to, the more they have to exercise their critical faculties. It is a supply-side issue as well: the more sources that come into being, the more contradictions in reports of the same story will be thrown up. And it is an issue of technology and malign intent: the more digital tricks that become available to propagandists and hoaxers, the less trust we ought to place.

The fact is, in the face of an expanding universe of information, every day increasingly feels like April Fool’s Day. But does all this really matter? Well, I would argue that it does. The fact of the matter is that the amount of trust that people are able to place in the institutions that govern or inform their lives accords closely with their sense of happiness. So in a broad, societal sense, it matters whether or not our media is trusted.

In the face of an expanding universe of information, every day increasingly feels like April Fool’s Day.

A drop in trust of media among the mass of the population has come in a general atmosphere in which institutions and other areas of public life have been tarnished all over the world. Just think of Parliament (expenses), sport (FIFA or doping), the financial services industry.

These scandal-led impacts on trust intertwine with a heightening of awareness of inequality across societies and an increasing distrust of elites, reflected in the emergence of candidates who stand (some more than others) outside the norm of politics.

It is a simple evil for us all if people do not trust what they read or hear or see. Any examination of political rhetoric shows how facts have been subsumed into the same calculations of value as opinion; balance in arguments is harder and harder to achieve and public discourse becomes shallower and more partisan, whether held in legislatures or on Twitter.

The Trust Barometer makes it very clear every year that when people trust a company, they buy their products.

So, in that context, it certainly matters that an increasingly large group of people are cynical about what they read, and that is particularly important when it comes to critical public issues such as the UK’s referendum on its membership of the EU. More simply, it is also a matter of commercial survival for the media companies in question. The Trust Barometer makes it very clear every year that, when people trust a company, they buy their products, they pay a higher price over comparable products, and they recommend them to friends.

Everybody knows that media companies, particularly publishers, are struggling with a grim outlook of plunging advertising revenues in print and digital, falling circulation, and the commoditisation of news online. This year has started dismally for them. The first quarter has seen the forced marriage of two great Italian titles, La Repubblica and La Stampa, the closure of the Independent in print, massive job culls at the Guardian, and further cuts rumoured in other UK groups. In countries such as Norway, where the government already subsidises local newspapers to stay open, there are urgent debates about whether to cut down the activities of the state broadcaster to help the online editions of newspapers survive. On the face of it, there are very few industries more in need of the boost that could be offered by increased trust than the news industry.

As it happens, there is no probable correlation between trust in the media and willingness to pay for online news, as recorded in the Digital News Report. But surely it is not a coincidence that the country which is rock bottom in terms of trust in the press (as opposed to the media generally) is also least likely of the markets surveyed by the Reuters Institute to pay for, or to consider paying for, online news?

There are of course other reasons why Britons won’t pay for online news – the commercial companies point to the huge and somewhat overbearing presence of the publicly funded BBC and they have a point, although the Digital News Report shows that payment levels are far higher in other countries – Finland, Sweden, Norway, Korea – where there are also powerful national broadcasters.

However, before we jump to connect the dots, we should think a bit harder: it’s probably just as likely to be true that many people no longer visit media outlets to get ‘trusted’ information. They go for fun. Or outrage. Qualitative research based on the Trust Barometer findings shows that people are likely to rate trustworthiness much lower as a reason for loyalty to a news source than how ‘informative’ – for which read gossipy – or whether or not the source is free.

And wasn’t that always the case? News consumers are sophisticated, as they show in the Digital News Report every year. They know they can trust some sources more than others and they don’t mind. But if they can’t trust a source, their view is, why should I pay for this? The inevitable conclusion is that trust isn’t a market-mover for every media owner, but for those who are going to rely on being paid online, it strikes me as being rather important.

All the evidence of recent history suggests that the advance of technology and the continued multiplication of news sources will only widen the split between those who trade in trust and those who trade in sensation. In other words, nothing changes except the technology. Nothing changes except the pace of change.