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How we ask about trust in news brands

How we ask about trust in news brands

14th June 2023

Trust is necessarily subjective and in the eye of the beholder, and it is important to note that trust is not always a meaningful indicator of whether a news outlet is trustworthy, whether it is accurate, whether it is fair, or of its quality.

Brand trust scores are only one measure that we look at in the Digital News Report. We ask several other questions about trust each year and provide industry and political context. We also conduct regular additional studies on what shapes perceptions of news brands. Our Trust in News project explores the issue in even more detail with the help of surveys, qualitative studies, and industry interviews. The Journalist Fellows we work with, our country partners, our Advisory Board, and the speakers we host for example for our Memorial Lecture and our Global Journalism Seminar provides further lived experience and personal and professional perspectives that inform our work on trust and so much more.

How representative is this 46-market survey? Who is it representative of?

The Digital News Report survey is based on an online poll but the methodology selects participants to be as representative of national populations as possible. Samples are assembled using representative quotas for age, gender, and region in every market and data is weighted to targets based on census/industry accepted data.

Additional education quotas were applied in all markets except India, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Philippines, South Africa, and Thailand. In Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Norway, the United States, and United Kingdom we also apply political quotas based on vote choice in the most recent national election.

Data from India, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa are representative of younger English speakers and not the national population because it is not possible to reach other groups in a representative way using an online survey. The survey was fielded mostly in English in these markets, and restricted to ages 18–50 in Kenya and Nigeria. Findings should not be taken to be nationally representative in these countries.

More generally, online samples will tend to under-represent the news consumption habits of people who are older and less affluent, meaning online use is typically over-represented and traditional offline use under-represented. In this sense, it is better to think of results as representative of the online population.  

What do the brand trust scores mean? Tell us more about the methodology.

We ask each respondent to rate a number of popular brands (15 in each country) in terms of trust in their news output. We do this on 0-10 scale where a score of 0 means that the respondent doesn’t see the brand as trustworthy at all and 10 means that they see the brand as completely trustworthy – with 5 meaning ‘neither trustworthy or untrustworthy’. There is an option for those who have not heard of any particular brand to ensure that responses used are only from those that are appropriately informed.

As we make explicit throughout the report, including next to tables presenting brand-level trust findings, whether respondents consider a brand trustworthy is their subjective judgement, and the scores are aggregates of public opinion, not an objective assessment of underlying trustworthiness. We believe every respondent can - and in a sense have a right to - form an opinion on whether they trust someone or something, and field the question because the resulting data is important, even if sometimes uncomfortable reading for some.

When we come to report these scores, we add up the proportion of respondents that give a score between 6-10 and mark this as ‘trust’. We also add up the proportion that give a brand a score between 0-4 and mark this as ‘don’t trust’. We then display the 15 brands in order of the proportion that ‘trust’, but also display the ‘don’t trust’ scores.

For avoidance of doubt, the full question asked is …

How trustworthy would you say news from the following brands is? Please use the scale below, where 0 is ‘not at all trustworthy’ and 10 is ‘completely trustworthy’.

How do you present the trust data in the report?

We present the data in an alphabetised table. In the past, we presented this data as a stacked bar chart, but this has lead some - whether they were happy with the findings or wanted to abuse them - to, despite our explicit explanation this was not what we provided, to treat the chart as a list of the most and least trusted news brands in a given country. We have changed this to discourage misleading self-congratulatory use as well as mitigate any risk of abuse.

The approach introduced in 2023 also helps to ensure that small differences are not given the appearance of great importance. In cases where there is around two percentage points difference or less between the brands, we cannot say for sure that one brand is more trusted than another. In surveys where the sample is around 2,000, we normally need around 3-percentage-point difference to be sure. We are careful not to try to claim that one brand is more trusted than another or that trust scores have changed unless those changes are statistically significant.

Additionally, due to survey length limitations, it is important to note that we only ask about 15 of the most widely used brands. It is very likely that there are brands with lower (and higher) trust scores that we don’t ask about. For that reason, we can’t say that any brand is the least (or most) trusted overall. Next to each chart we are careful to say:

“Only the below brands were included in the survey. It should not be treated as a list of the most or least trusted brands as it is not exhaustive.”

How do you choose which brands to ask about?

The brand selection is a strategic sample and not comprehensive. We consult with country experts, prior years’ Digital News Report data, and other data sources to define the most widely-used brands (across traditional and online channels) when it comes to news. We also try to include ‘local newspapers’ or ‘local television’ as catch-all titles as we recognise their impact is considerable in most countries, but we can’t ask about each individual brand due to survey length limitations. 

Some of the most widely used brands in your survey are often not very well trusted – how is this possible?

Our research shows that people use news brands for a variety of reasons beyond the political or public interest reporting that can influence trust ratings. Some larger and more popular outlets carry a wider range of entertainment or lifestyle content, for example, which stimulates usage. Also, some brands may be widely used because they have high brand recognition, for instance. Usage and trust are not necessarily correlated. We also find that brands that have a long history and heritage often have higher levels of general trust than brands that have started more recently. It can take time for that track record of trust to be established in the minds of ordinary people.

How do you try to contextualise the findings to ensure that trust scores are not taken out of context or misinterpreted?

These scores may be uncomfortable for some brands but the Reuters Institute believes it is important to provide comparative information over time as well as between countries. Trust is one of a number of measures we track, including consumption of different sources, device usage, social media use, and much more. We aim to maintain consistency in our measurements year-on-year so that ratings of trust, levels of news consumption, and more, can be contextualised.

Country data is accompanied by an 800-word commentary from a media expert that aims to set the data in a wider context. These commentaries aim to capture, among other things, specific challenges including political attacks on independent news media (something our new questions around media criticism, added this year, can also help shed light on). We write a short commentary on the trust scores where appropriate, noting on some occasions statistically relevant changes. In 2023 we have added additional context on each country page, including Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Index ranking for each.

Is trust in news linked to press freedom?

The commentary by our country partners offers important qualitative context that makes explicit that trust in news plays out differently in different parts of the world – and our data can help show that relationships with trust in the news at the national level are rarely straightforward.

For example, we might expect that markets with higher levels of press freedom (as measured by Reporters Without Borders) have higher levels of trust in news in our survey. While some countries with higher levels of press freedom do indeed have relatively high levels of trust, trust can also be above average in countries with relatively low levels of press freedom. (Similarly to how, in the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, the country with the highest level of trust in the media is China.)

As the chart below shows, in our data, there is even some tentative evidence of a curved relationship between press freedom and trust in news. What this means is that among countries with press freedom above a certain level, countries with higher levels of press freedom also tend to have higher levels of trust. But among countries with press freedom below a certain level, it is sometimes the case that the lower the press freedom the higher the trust—perhaps because disagreements between the government and the press are less visible to the public, or because the information environment has become polluted to such a degree that people find it hard to know which sources are trustworthy.

These complex dynamics are better captured by the qualitative commentary and insight provided in the country pages in the report, but as the chart shows, the quantitative data can also be used to capture the particular challenges faced by independent news media who face authoritarian governments and other kinds of political attacks.