Trust in the news media is in short supply these days. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer shared with Axios, confidence in news sources around the world has fallen sharply. The poll conducted in 28 countries found that 53 percent of respondents trust traditional news media for accurate information–a record low. And it’s worse in the U.S., with less than half of Americans trusting these news sources. Even more dismaying, nearly 6 in 10 people surveyed think journalists purposely try to mislead the public by saying things they know are false and that most news organizations are more concerned with supporting a political position than with informing the public.
The global infodemic surrounding COVID-19 accounts for some of the 8-point drop in the last year, but it’s not the only cause. Anti-press rhetoric like calling reporters the “enemy of the people” has chipped away at the news media’s reputation, as have political leaders who dismiss reports they don’t like as “fake news.” Some blame the press itself for factual errors and biased reporting. Together, all these factors have undermined the vital watchdog role journalists play and enabled dangerous conspiracy theories to take root and spread.
This pervasive decline in trust in the mainstream news media is a dangerous trend for our democracy, which relies on a free press to supply citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. When the public cannot agree on a common set of facts, the consequences can be grave and, as we learned on Jan. 6, even lethal.
So what can be done to close the trust gap?
Educate the public: The news media needs to expand its core mission to include educating the public about the value of a free press and the public service role of journalism. That means transparency–pulling back the curtain to show people how news is produced. If, for example, people learn how reporters vet sources and verify information, they will have more confidence in the news media writ large. Sidebars like this one from ProPublica that explain how journalists do their job can help the public understand how far journalists go to ensure accuracy and fairness.
Rebuild local journalism: Local news has faced enormous financial challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Washington Post’s media critic, Margaret Sullivan, 55 news outlets have folded since the pandemic began largely because of a freefall in local ad revenue. But she sees glimmers of hope in start-ups like the Tiny News Collective, a group that supports journalists who want to build local news organizations from scratch. Research shows that a robust local news eco-system holds local officials accountable, uncovers corruption, improves civic engagement, and I would venture, promotes trust in the news media.
Diversify newsroom staffs: Newsrooms must reflect the communities they serve, but most do not. The New York Times acknowledged in its 2021 report, A Call to Action, that Blacks and Latinos account for only 9 percent and 5 percent respectively of all its employees. Even fewer hold positions of leadership. To rectify this, management plans to increase the number of Black and Latino senior leaders by 50 percent over the next four years. Newsrooms across the country should conduct a similar reckoning to consider whether their staff represents the community they serve. Studies show diverse newsrooms lead to richer and more inclusive stories, which can only help rebuild trust in news sources.
Perhaps the easiest way for journalists to inspire trust in the news media is to get the facts right. The Media Insight Project asked adults what factors drive them to trust news sources, and 85 percent said accuracy. Other trust-boosting practices include making sure the story has the latest details and that it is concise and to the point.
Restoring the public’s trust in the news media could look a lot like building up savings in a bank account. Just like a real bank account, journalists need to make regular deposits through factually accurate reporting and textured, impactful stories that build up a balance of credibility and a large reserve of trust with the public. That way, when there’s a mistake, aka a withdrawal, there’s still a balance of trust in the account.
Our news outlets need to put a premium on this trust because they can’t buy it—like so many things in life, it is earned. And we, the public, need to do our part, too and take responsibility for becoming smarter and more critical news consumers who support–and trust– a free and independent press.