KATHERINE JAMESON ARMSTRONG Head of Qualitative Research, Media Development
We live in a world of overwhelming amounts of information, ‘fake news’, opinion, and conjecture, where public conversation has arguably become more polarised and even hostile to the media itself.
Surely, in such a world, trust in the media must be in crisis? The answer is, as it so often is, complex.
Traditional media: a good news story?
Industry conversations have for some time been firmly focused on the decreased relevance of traditional media over time. The influence and power of traditional gatekeepers of content has been eroded to a certain extent with the explosion in content sources. Whereas traditional media may have been seen as the voice of authority, this sense of top down production for consumption has been undermined by the internet. In a world where audiences can check multiple sources, they have at least the ability to back up their own conclusions about ‘the truth’. There are suggestions that the concept of ‘universal truth’ may no longer even exist in this environment, where facts are replaced with theories.
However, evidence suggests that trust in traditional media has in fact managed to withstand this challenge over a long period of time. Data collected between 2007 and 2018, shows no significant long-term decline in claimed trust in traditional media. According to Eurobarometer, running since 2000 across 29 countries, over six in ten also say they tend to trust the news they receive from the radio, television, and printed news. This is backed by the Ipsos Veracity Index, where we see that 62% trust television newsreaders to tell the truth in 2018 (with little change in this figure since the index started in 1983). Whilst trust in journalists have always been low (26% in 2018), this had actually gone up +7 ppt overall since 1983. Importantly, our 2018 study ‘In Media We Trust’50 showed when it comes to trust in print media (newspapers/magazines), trust was consistent across all ages.
That said, while this appears to be a very good news story for traditional media there are indications that 2019 may represent something of a turning point for trust. Ipsos’ 2019 Global Advisor survey – run in 27 markets globally – shows that there may be signs of trust in news outlets beginning to wane. The study found that over the past year (2019 vs. 2018) there has been a decline in trust in traditional sources of news and information (including: TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines). It will be important to continue to monitor whether the impact of this continues beyond the past year’s shifts in social/political agenda and media narratives.
Importantly, this data presents an overall picture, and does not drill down to individual brands. Our qualitative work in this area suggests an even more complex picture, where traditional media brands are still struggling with the thorny question of trust, with deep rooted tribalism at play. We hear concerns about bias, sources and the distance between traditional media brands and real lives at a local level. Perhaps then, the fact that the media is driving conversation about trust in itself is in part driving perceptions, and its very coverage of the debate about trust also raises questions about its own credibility.
Our 2018 study ‘In Media We Trust’ showed that globally trust in the media is also correlated with educational levels, those with higher levels of education trusting the media more than those with lower levels of education. We would suggest that this relates to a greater self confidence in ascertaining what people believe to be true or not, but could also be driven by the perception that media brands talk from a position of privilege that does not always reflect the ‘person on the street’.
Critical thinking around digital media
When looking at the evidence from long running studies, it is clear that globally, people have tended to trust traditional media more than digital media. The mounting pressure faced by digital platforms such as Google and Facebook has dominated conversations on trust, with initiatives launched to combat this (such as fact-checking and flagging extremist content) being met with varying degrees of scepticism. It is interesting that Facebook has attempted to re-position itself as a technology company, rather than a media provider (i.e. providing products and services as their primary goal, rather than hosting and producing content). However, whether users are taking this on board remains to be seen. In this context, could it be that changes in attitudes to digital media sources are having the greatest impact on an overall sense that trust in media is a problem?
As mentioned in our introduction, as people get more familiar with the internet, they trust it less. The Eurobarometer shows those not trusting the internet rose from 31% to 46% in 2006-2017. Twenty-two of the 29 countries measured saw a fall in trust in the internet over that time. In the US, a 2016 Pew study found that trust in information from national and local news organisations is about twice that of trust in information from social media, while research from Reuters shows that in five of seven countries, trust in digital media is lower than public service broadcasters, commercial TV or print.51
Whilst the digital media world offers significant benefits to audiences in terms of relevance, personalisation and choice, this data suggests a growing sense of awareness that there are trade-offs in terms of certainty. Lower levels of trust in digital communication reflect perceptions of quality and rigour versus traditional media – TV, radio and print – which are expensive to produce.
There is also more nuance to be explored here. There is for example, a global age divide; the young trust digital platforms more than older people. Globally those under 35 are far more likely to trust digital platforms than people over 50, while Baby Boomers are more likely to trust in TV/radio than Millennials.
Elsewhere, there are signs that younger people are increasingly developing a degree of positive critical thinking around trust in online news sources. Ofcom’s 2018 report ‘Children and parents: Media use and attitudes’52 shows that whilst social media sites are a very popular source of news for young teens in the UK, this group also ranks them as the least trustworthy and accurate source. Conversely, they rank TV news most highly against these attributes while more than eight in ten of those who use TV for news consider it trustworthy (85%) and accurate (86%). There is also an increasing awareness and understanding of fake news, 74% are aware of its meaning as ‘false/made up news stories written deliberately to mislead people’ vs. 67% in 2017.
Cultural nuance is everything
Finally, we must be very careful here not to make global assumptions about levels of trust in the media. Whilst global digital platforms are making inroads everywhere, the strength and cultural power of the media is often a national and even local issue. Cultural nuance is essential – people’s perceptions and relationship to the media is driven by historical levels of trust in their country. Therefore, the power dynamics of the media industry in each market, the extent of regulation, official interference or manipulation also matter.
Certainly, trust in newspapers and magazines vary greatly across individual countries. According to the 2019 Ipsos Global Advisor study, Indians are most likely to trust newspapers and magazines to be a reliable source of news and information with a 55% net trust score. Serbia and Hungary are least likely to trust newspapers and magazines whilst the UK sits at the global average, with trust and distrust in newspapers and magazines about even (1% net trust).
Globally, consumers are more likely to trust television and radio (net score +4% points vs. newspapers and magazines) as a news source. This is particularly true in the UK which has a 32% net trust score for television and radio, a traditional pattern reflecting stronger rules for impartiality on broadcasters than print media.
There appears to be an issue with trust in established markets, focused on digital platforms. Emerging markets, like Indonesia, have marginally higher levels of trust, but also more people who say their trust in the media has grown in the past five years than say it decreased. The reverse is true in established markets where the share of people who say they trust media less than they did five years ago exceeds the share of those who say they trust it more by -15 points. It is important to note here that this decline is self-claimed and doesn’t show up in trend data – we just think our trust in the media is in decline. That in itself, as with our general obsession with ‘trust’ is important as a reflection of our anxiety.
Above all, the US is bucking the trend, and because of its cultural dominance, this may in part explain media interest in trust globally. The General Social Survey shows a significant decline in confidence in the press. In 1973 only 15% had ‘hardly any’ confidence in the press, but this has risen steadily to 50% in 2016. Indeed, the Ipsos Global Advisor survey supports the reduction in level of trust in the US. In one year between 2018 and 2019 trust that print (newspapers and magazines) and TV and radio, were a reliable source of news fell by 10% points each to just half of the US population (51%) respectively.
We also need to explore the link that satisfaction with the media may have with socio-political change. Global research from the Pew Research Center finds a strong correlation between satisfaction with the media and trust that the government will do what is right for its country.53 The gap is largest in Vietnam, Sweden and the UK. In the US, there is no difference in media satisfaction between those who trust the government and those who do not.
So where to next?
So, there has not been a long term, global crisis of trust in all media. Where there is a decline in trust, perceived or actual, we should view this as an opportunity for media owners to re-negotiate their own relationships with their audiences. People are consuming more media than ever, across more channels than ever before – mass media’s role in society has hardly diminished.
We also need to be mindful of the evolving context. There has been an increase in conversations around trust in media, which may see a significant shift in the data for 2019. The evolving context with the acceleration of AI (e.g. the impressive face swapping technology such as ‘deep fakes’) and the shift toward ‘virtuality’ (and the virtual economy) means the online and offline worlds are blurring – and audiences may find it harder and harder to know who or what to trust.
Media brands cannot simply stay as ‘traditional’ offline propositions to gain trust – as we know their relevance in waning. However, there does seem to be a real opportunity here for long standing media brands to stake and provide a stamp of trust in an increasingly murky and blurry virtual world. Record circulations for titles like the Financial Times and the Washington Post, that invest in quality, in part reflect a search for ‘real’ news, not fake news.
There is clearly a role for media owners to be more transparent and more honest about how they work and how they are funded. Digital brands need to address the issue of trust head on with more transparency, better tools and a renewed sense of purpose.