What makes readers, viewers trust news? What breaks trust?

Friday September 17 2021
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Author, Odoobo C. Bichachi is the Nation Media Group-Uganda public editor. PHOTO/FILE.

By Odoobo Charles Bichachi

Trust in news has become a leading area of focus for media scholars as journalism grapples with how to regain audiences and influence – at least in terms of perception and consumer numbers. 

Many have cited declining trust or relevance (irrelevance?) of the content as well as distraction/disruption by technological developments as the big hurdles. 

Still, many have put it down to economic hardships and affordability. This is especially cited in the developing world where, for instance, a litre of milk costs the same as a copy of a newspaper or a loaf of bread, presenting a very dicey option to many whether to walk back home with a newspaper or a loaf of bread.

All this notwithstanding, what seems clear and largely agreed is that trust is the currency that journalism needs in plenty to live above the waterline in this era of multiple information, misinformation and disinformation unleashed by advances in communications technology.

A recent survey by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) in four countries – USA, India, Brazil and UK – revealed very interesting patterns about who is likely or unlikely to trust the media.

A ranking by RISJ of 40 selected countries in different parts of the world based on the percentage of the population that trusts the media was equally revealing. The USA and France are at the bottom of the trust index while Finland is top followed by Portugal and Kenya.

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It is important that journalists that sit behind a computer keyboard everyday to churn out stories or make decisions on what to publish, what not to publish or how to publish it pay attention to these studies.

Most importantly, I wish to share seven key finding of another research by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, on what makes people trust and rely on news.

The first one is accuracy! At least 85 per cent of people surveyed said accuracy was their most important consideration in trusting news or a media organisation. We have always known this! It is important that journalists always get the facts right so as to earn and maintain trust in what they produce.

The second factor influencing trust was timeliness of news. At least 76 per cent said it was important that the news was up-to-date and with latest information. Audiences are put off by “history” carried as “breaking news”! If you cannot break the news, then at least explain the news! That will be new and timely!

Clarity is the third element in influencing trust in news. At least 72 per cent of respondents said news stories should be concise and to the point. Many journalists believe that colourful language and verbosity is what news consumers on whatever platform want. It is a put-off and undermines trust.

For online news platforms, three factors mainly influence trust: Less interference by adverts (63 per cent), apps loading fast (63 per cent), and how well the site works on mobile device.  

There was also an interesting finding on how trust is influenced by the topic and sources, or vice versa. The study found that with regard to domestic issues such as the economy, environment, etc, at least 78 per cent think data and expert voices determine whether a story is trusted or not. 

As for politics, 80 per cent think a concise and up-to-the-point story is trusted rather than political mumbo-jumbo! For sports and lifestyle stories, 54per cent and 53 per cent respectively preferred entertaining and flowery presentation.

Social media, especially Facebook, has been vilified as the deathblow to mainstream journalism but in terms of trust, the study revealed that only 12 per cent of respondents trust news on Facebook and of these, 66 per cent only trust it basing on the original producer of the content. 

Thus a story shared on Facebook from Daily Monitor online shall be trusted, not a story from a nondescript source. That is some good news for mainstream journalists competing with often faceless citizen journalists!

My final share on the trust in news study is the one single factor that leads a reader, viewer or listener to lose trust in news. They are basically two: perceived bias of journalist in the story, and clear inaccuracies in the story. 

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