Few subjects are more certain to trigger a reflex of denial in national newspaper journalists than trust, and in particular the strong evidence that most people do not trust them to tell the truth. If you can get past the visceral reluctance to think about trust at all (never mind reporting on it) you will almost certainly hear the ritual dismissals, which go like this:
– ‘It was ever thus; things are no worse now than in the past, so why worry?’
– ‘Trust in every kind of institution and profession is in decline, so this is a worry for everyone and not just for journalists.’
– ‘Journalists aren’t meant to be popular. Our job is to challenge and question people so it’s no surprise if a lot of people don’t trust us.’
– ‘People may say they don’t trust us but they still read what we write, so the surveys are meaningless.’
Not one of those excuses holds water. In a paper for the journal Radical Statistics which you can read in full here I have reviewed the principal historic datasets on trust in journalism from YouGov, Ipsos MORI and Eurobarometer, along with other more fragmentary trust data from Edelman, Transparency International, British Social Attitudes and others. This is what I found:
• There are no grounds for saying that ‘it was ever thus’. The data before about 2011 are inconsistent and contradictory, so we can’t say whether before that date trust was higher, lower or the same.
• What we can say with confidence is that since 2011 trust in national newspaper journalism has been roughly steady around the 20 per cent mark. That is, roughly one in five people trust national newspaper journalists to tell the truth.
• Compared to other forms of journalism, compared to most other walks of life and compared to print journalism in almost every other country in Europe, this level of trust has to be be considered low or even very low. In other words, national newspaper journalism in the UK definitely has a trust problem and it is not just part of a trend affecting everyone.
• Nor is there much weight to the argument that journalists are distrusted because they challenge people. Broadcast and regional journalists have exactly the same mission to challenge but the data show they are trusted considerably more than the average national newspaper journalist.
• As for the claim that people read the journalism even if they say they don’t trust the journalists, that too may have some truth in it but it also ignores what is surely a crucial point: the number of people who are prepared to pay for their journalism – a very important indicator of commitment as well as an important source of revenue – is falling like a stone.
Audited circulation figures show around 40,000 people a month deciding they have had enough of buying newspapers, and while it would be too much to say they are doing so because of distrust it is equally impossible to claim that readers are remaining loyal in spite of the trust data. Whatever else they may be doing, they are not remaining loyal.
Time to listen to the message
It is time journalists took their hands off their ears and listened. It is time they thought about how they might rebuild trust. In a few short years printed newspapers will cease to exist and almost all of the readers on whose clicks the incomes of journalists will depend will be able and content to skip around as they pick their news sources.
Where journalists claim to do honest news reporting (and any other kind of reporting isn’t really journalism), they will not survive long without trust. This will be doubly true if, as seems likely in consequence of the fake news debate, the big online and social media platforms adjust their algorithms to favour news sources that are seen as trustworthy.
How do journalists build that kind of trust? They check their stories thoroughly to make sure they have got their facts right. They are as open as they can be about their sourcing, so readers have an idea where the information is coming from. They correct mistakes promptly and clearly, however uncomfortable that might feel.
And finally, they show that they are truly accountable when they are challenged by readers or by the subjects of their stories – and truly accountable does not mean membership of a sham regulator such as IPSO. An independent body must decide, because readers are far more likely to trust journalists who may be answerable to an independent body.
If you want to know more about trust in journalism, read the full article here.