Trust is more than just a number

Vanessa Clifford, CEO, Newsworks
Vanessa Clifford, CEO, Newsworks

To really get under the skin of people's trust in media, we need to be more granular in how we measure it, argues Newsworks' CEO.

Working in the media industry, you don’t often come across the term trust without its emotive stablemate: crisis.

Various surveys and barometers state that we’re living through an age of chronic mistrust. From politics to the media, it’s often reported that trust is in decline across institutions.

Marking a step-change in this trend, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer – released yesterday – shows that trust in "traditional" media is up 13% points to 61%, while the UK’s trust in social media is faltering; down to 24% with worries about regulation, transparency and illegal and unethical behaviour featuring highly among people’s concerns. 

Trust is personal, contextual and responsive

In this climate, "more established news media have enjoyed a very significant increase in public support" according to Edelman, as the Barometer reports that people are using social media less and an increased number of young people are leaving platforms all together.

Of course, this is encouraging for established newbrands and professional journalists, who also saw their trust rating leaping 13 percentage points. After a year of revelations about fake news, ad fraud, toxic programmatic placement and increasing concerns about social media addiction among young people and adults alike, the tide appears to be turning on social media platforms.

For my part, growing awareness about the impact social media platforms are having – both on our news ecosystem and society more widely – are welcome.

But while Edelman’s Trust Barometer findings are on the whole good news for our industry, they demonstrate how quickly and fluidly things can change when the overriding goal is to put a number on trust levels.

Being able to succinctly distil trust levels down to a percentage makes for a headline-grabbing, easily tweetable statement – and of course who wouldn’t take the opportunity to celebrate positive numbers – yet it’s my view (and I’m not alone in this) that you can’t put just a single number on trust. It’s too personal, too complex and too contextual to boil down to an all-encompassing figure.

Here at Newsworks, we tried. We commissioned Differentology to explore people’s trust in various media with the aim of producing a pithy, promotable index allowing people to compare and contrast trust levels across media type.

What we found was that trust is far too nuanced to be edited into such a compact format. Trust is personal, contextual and responsive according to Onora O’Neill, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. What we trust and why is deeply rooted in our own personal beliefs and experiences.

When the personal nature of trust is taken into account, asking somebody "do you trust the media?" loses all relevance – it’s far too wide. In order to get a true understanding of the trust people place in media, there has to be consideration of what they consume and why.

For example, different newspaper brands appeal to readers for different reasons. We know from our work with Differentology that The Sun scores highly for sports coverage given its expertise in the area, while i is rated for its lifestyle news and The Times for breaking news.

87% of postgraduate London-dwelling parents aged over 40 are reading newspaper brands across platforms every week

In addition, people are not always logical in their attitudes and actions – hence the conundrum that the more regularly you read a newspaper brand, the more likely you are to trust it to be honest, accurate, reliable and competent; yet there is also no correlation between likelihood to consume a brand and levels of trust.

Edelman’s finding that there has been an increase in "news rejecters" is not overly surprising given the single question posed. 2,000 respondents were asked whether they agree that they are reading or listening to the news less (33%) or whether they are avoiding it altogether (19%). Edelman says that the ‘news avoiders’ – 664 of them – are "highly educated professionals, over the age of 40, with children, and living in London". According to Ed Williams, Edelman UK’s chief executive, this means we are becoming "a nation of news-skimmers and news-avoiders".

Yet NRS Padd – a survey of over 34,000 respondents – finds that 87% of postgraduate London-dwelling parents aged over 40 are reading newspaper brands across platforms every week, while the country’s overall monthly readership across platforms hasn’t fallen, but grown to 47.3 million.

While the above only gives us information about newspaper readership in particular and doesn’t touch on trust, it definitely contests the view that we are a nation of news avoiders. In regards to Edelman’s finding, more detail is needed as to what news people are avoiding and where. Does it mean fewer sources? Less time-spent? Fewer real-time updates? And how does it fit with the growth in trust for "traditional" media?

If we know that trust is a multi-dimensional entity driven by numerous factors including honesty, accuracy, reliability, competency and empathy, this detail should be reflected in how we research and measure it.

Distilling trust down to a yes/no generic question regardless of a respondent’s media habits or their context for trusting does our understanding of this subject a disservice.

Vanessa Clifford is chief executive of Newsworks

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