The theme of WACC’s annual report for 2020 is “Truthful Voices Matter”. What appears to be self-evident reflects a growing perception that public interest media need to rebuild trust in their news content and opinions: by demonstrating impartiality, balance, and transparency.
Why is trust eroding, how does it play out across different contexts and different groups, what are the implications, and what might be done about it? These are the organising questions behind the Trust in News Project being led by the Reuters Institute. In “What we think we know and what we want to know: perspectives on trust in news in a changing world” (3 December 2020), four key takeaways (so far) have been identified:
There is no single “trust in news” problem, but rather multiple challenges involving both the supply of news and demand for information. Different segments of the public, as well as journalists and researchers, hold different beliefs about how journalism works and sometimes conflicting views about what they expect from it.
Many scholars and practitioners have diagnosed problems in the production of news that may contribute to distrust. The effects of changing distribution practices, especially the important role played by platforms, are less well understood but are likely to be important.
Internal and external initiatives focused around transparency, engagement, and media literacy have shown promise, but empirical evidence about what works, with whom, and under what circumstances, remains murky.
Efforts to improve trust, as important as they may be, involve trade-offs in divided and polarised societies and can also be at odds with other important priorities, such as holding power to account.
Meanwhile, in a submission to the UN Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (March 2021), the Centre for Law and Democracy has argued that governments should focus on measures that: build trust with citizens and enhance the flow of reliable, accurate information from official sources to citizens; ensure the adoption and implementation of strong right to information laws; promote a strong, independent and diverse media sector, including through supporting media sustainability initiatives and independent public service broadcasters.
But it’s not all down to governments. There is also the question of civil society’s role – learning how to read information sources for balance and bias – a skill that young and old need in order to survive in a world overloaded by fake news and infotainment. Trust is a two-way street.
Image above: WACC’s annual report