Don’t believe the hype: The decline of trust in mainstream media
Look beyond the headlines and we discover more nuanced insights about the evolving nature of attention and trust, writes Fuse Insights' Nick Drew
2017 saw a greater focus on the state of news media than for years previously. Fake news dominated headlines, data showed public trust in the media plummeting, and suggestions social media have replaced established publishers fuelled concerns that the news industry has lost its way.
The simplest narrative is that fake news and social media are to blame for the industry’s woes. But few discussions of the space look beyond the headlines to focus on the public themselves, and how changing attitudes and behaviours are driving these shifts. So we at Fuse Insights developed a study to understand more.
Like most countries, Canada isn’t immune to these concerns about the state of news media; Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows trust in the media slipping by 10 percentage points from 2016 to 2017.
Our own research suggests only a fifth of Canadians trust the media in general, and the majority use Facebook for news at least weekly. But closer inspection reveals more nuanced insight about the evolving nature of attention and trust, with implications for publishers and marketers in Canada and further afield.
The continued importance of news
Our first major finding was that news still matters. Surveying a cross-section of the Canadian public, 83% of respondents agreed it’s important people stay up to date with what’s going on in the world, reflecting results we’ve seen in previous research. Three quarters said they follow news and current affairs; just over half of those surveyed consider themselves well informed about what’s going on in the world.
And traditional media still have a place in these news habits. Half of those surveyed read a newspaper in print every week and 70% watch TV news. This varies by age, but still, 40% of 18-34 year olds surveyed read a newspaper at least weekly, and 55% watch the news on TV.
Trust in short supply; fake news not the cause
The research also highlighted that importance doesn’t mean trust. Only 19% said they trust the media in general; more damning was that only a third would trust a news story they found in a (print) newspaper. Similar proportions would trust a news story heard on the radio, or seen on TV news. Those remain the most trusted sources - only a fifth of Twitter users would trust a news story they found there, and only 15% of respondents would trust a news story shared by a friend on Facebook – but there is clearly a problem with trust in the news.
The most important finding of the research, though, was that fake news is ubiquitous in the public consciousness (more than 9 out of 10 have heard of it), but doesn’t explain this declining trust. Only a quarter of those polled said that they definitely worry about fake news; and when asked why trust in media is declining, answers stretched beyond fake news to encompass falling journalistic standards, sensationalism and the chase for clicks, even among high-quality newsbrands.
Instead, the research highlights two significant trends underpinning this declining trust in media.
The decline of trust by default
The first is a widespread shift away from implicit trust, affecting not just media, but also business, government and even NGOs. Only 14% of those polled trust companies and brands in general, 5% trust politicians, 19% trust the media. That’s not the same as instinctive mistrust, though: instead, the majority have no strong opinion either way, but wait to be convinced that something is trustworthy or not, whether it’s a publisher, brand or political figure.
The other trend is the changing dynamic between publisher and consumer. In April 1930 a now-famous BBC radio news broadcast explained “there is no news” and abruptly ended, epitomising the publisher as curator of what’s important to know in the world.
Today we’re further than ever from that ideal: across media the proliferation of sources, improvements in reporting, and imperatives of ad revenue drive a never-ending stream of content 24 hours a day. Consumers are forced to actively choose what to pay attention to.
There aren’t enough hours in the day to follow every news event or available source; and for every event and topic they must also choose which of the numerous contradictory versions to believe.
The knock-on effect, of course, is to make people more sceptical across the board: by definition, choosing what to trust means dismissing others as less trustworthy.
Fake news focused attention on the state of media, but falling trust in news media is down to more than just bogus headlines. Unfortunately for newsbrands, this also means there’s no easy solution.
The evolution of media has reached a point at which consumers face unprecedented competition for their attention, and can choose from a plethora of worldviews for every event. That’s not necessarily to say that individual publishers are architects of their own demise, merely that where a news outlet could previously rely on its brand and history to validate a unique place at the centre of its audience’s daily life, things have moved on. Consumers are in charge and they’re more selective than ever. They know where to turn for credible news reporting, but they also know that established newsbrands aren’t the bastions of journalistic integrity they once were. For every President’s Club exposé, there’s ‘news’ about how attractive people are more likely to be rightwing, a dozen stories about what may or may not happen at the next royal wedding, and a police interrogation ended by flatulence.
Ultimately, newsbrands have - at least for now - lost the freedom to take their audience’s engagement for granted. Trust and attention are in short supply, and the onus is on newsbrands in the long term to justify their role in the public’s life, and earn and continually warrant the public’s trust through the quality of their outputs.
Research outline: We surveyed 800 Anglophone internet-using Canadians, nationally representative by age, gender and region, with no further quotas or filters applied to the sample. More here.
Nick Drew is a former head of research for Yahoo Canada, previously worked at the Financial Times, and is now CEO of Fuse Insights