It has become an article of faith among editors and journalists that they must make strategic efforts to build readers’ confidence. However, late last year, a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford offers a sobering caveat:
Few efforts to build reader confidence have gone beyond existing readers and likely subscribers to the truly skeptics.
I asked Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the institute, if this should be interpreted as pessimism about all of the trust efforts of the past few years. “I would say realism,” he said. “Even if the truth is not entirely welcome … we have to be clear about the incentives (at stake).”
At present, these incentives are above all keeping subscribers or broadcast audiences, often associated with the addition of a new paid digital base, according to the report. This means that “few individual news agencies have clear incentives to invest in building trust with indifferent, skeptical or downright hostile parts of the public.” Additionally, few organizations with trust-building initiatives “can indicate systematic efforts to monitor their effectiveness”.
The findings were based on focus group conversations with journalists from four countries: the US, UK, Brazil and India. (A previous Reuters investigative report last summer found that trust levels are low around the world and the United States ranks last out of 46 countries polled.)
On the one hand, Nielsen said, the main measure of confidence is the attitude of non-professional users alone. But he and co-author Benjamin Toff felt it was worth digging deeper into how the trust challenge plays out within news organizations. Given limited resources, it may make sense for individual organizations to focus their engagement efforts on the best prospects, write the authors of the Reuters report. The problem is “for journalism in general”, they continue:
While the media are each focused on building trust with those who are already most likely to trust them – and many already vying for the attention, trust, and income of readers of the same party, often already relatively confident (and privileged) of the public – those most indifferent or suspicious of information, who are the most difficult to reach and the most resistant to such calls, and frankly often less commercially attractive, are likely to ‘be left behind or further alienated.
The editors of the discussions indicated that they were aware of the problem and offered experimental solutions that their organizations are trying.
Paul Volpe, now Editor-in-Chief of New York Times Trusted Team in September, said the Times shares Reuters’ view that there are groups of “staunch loyalists who already believe you” and “inconvertibles who never will.”
The Times focuses on defining a third middle group which could be those who don’t yet know what to think: “Maybe it’s a younger audience, maybe it’s someone who doesn’t. is not as exposed to the media.
One avenue to define this group, Volpe continued, may be social media comments, many of which are based solely on the incomplete picture a headline brushes rather than an assessment of the whole story. Such messages can point the way to subsequent stories needed to address commentators’ concerns.
Suki Dardarian, senior editor and vice-president of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, offered a similar perspective from a regional newspaper: “If these are older, selfless people, how bad do I have a group young people who might be more interested? Like, I’m not saying I’m erasing them, but you know, if I have to make choices… ”
She also referred to Star Tribune initiatives seen as successes in building trust. Internal measures suggested readers’ interest in uplifting stories, so The Star Tribune dramatically increased its storytelling on faith, religion, and spirituality.
Likewise, an annual article on lifestyle challenges, like reducing sugar intake or improving sleep, prompted the creation of a community format on these topics that drew thousands of comments.
For the hardest to reach groups, the report concludes that there are no easy answers, especially in a climate of polarization and disparagement of politicians in the media. But he argues: “A large part of the public sees journalism and the news media as powerful institutions… and they are unlikely to accept that the root of the problem lies elsewhere, or that they have little to do with it. options available to them. So, giving up on building trust can look like a real lack of interest in the matter. “
I asked Nielsen for further thoughts on what outlets could do. He proposed three.
“Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, and that’s quite encouraging,” he said. Points of sale should not hesitate to “show the value of their work”.
Nielsen also believes the media “should be as clear as possible about the mission of the organization,” especially at a time when much of the public suspects hidden intentions. “You have to have ideals. Say it and then show it.
Nielsen has noticed (like me) how many of the best digital startups are self-explanatory about their mission and editorial standards. Many newspapers, on the other hand, “are maybe 100 years old, but it’s easy to forget that, especially among a community of young readers, what you stand for may not be known,” he said. .
Third, Nielsen suggests – as the report does – that outlets need to spend some time dealing with the facts about what they think about alternative trust strategies. “Nobody can do it all,” Nielsen said, but it was easy to go back to a narrow approach without a lot of thought.
He offered, as examples of creative approaches, an initiative of the Société Radio-Canada of embedding journalists in ephemeral newsrooms in remote indigenous communities or the Los Angeles Times “has its own story” of inadequate coverage of the many ethnic and racial groups it intends to serve.
Going forward, Nielsen suggested that outlets could borrow a page from the handbook of successful politicians. “You do one set of things to energize the grassroots and one set to reach the undecided.”
Its agenda for 2022 includes more academic work to understand the daily impact of platforms and design online experiences to see what works of what is tried.
I also asked for a reaction to Joy Mayer’s report, founder and director of Trusting News (and an assistant faculty member from Poynter). “It is reaching absolutely crucial tensions,” she said. “There are choices to be made about who you want to serve. “
Even if the goal ends up being simply to seek out a larger audience, she said, “you are going to meet some hostile people… and there are others who are uninformed or have reason to be suspicious. “.
His 6-year project, co-sponsored by the Reynolds Institute at the University of Missouri and the American Press Institute, embarked on a series of experiments under the banner of “the road to pluralism”. For example, as the Reuters report recommends, AB testing determined whether explicit links to a mission statement make particular content more believable.
The Reuters report notes that hostile attacks by some politicians on “the media” so prevalent here are also a major problem for Brazilian and Indian editors who participated in the study. The level of hostility towards journalists and their organizations, as well as echo chambers for animosity and misinformation, have produced a grim mood among many journalists, according to the report.
This doesn’t suggest any easy solutions, but I agree with the Reuters authors that now is not the time to give up identifying compelling audience segments and a sustained effort to gain their trust. And for realism, as Nielsen suggested, on the actual distance to outlets.