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Public perspectives on trust in news

Public perspectives on trust in news

Almost all news reporting implicitly asks the public to trust it. At a basic level, it asks people to trust that ‘we really did talk to the sources we mention, they really said what we have quoted them on, and the data we cite is reliable’. And in a more expansive sense, ‘our editorial judgement on what to cover, who to talk to, and what data to rely on is sound, so is our presentation of what we found, and our motivations’. 

But across the world, much of the public does not trust most news most of the time. While there is significant variation from country to country and from brand to brand, in this year’s report, just 40% of our respondents across all 47 markets say they trust most news. 

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Public trust is not the same as trustworthiness. Sometimes people trust individuals and institutions that are not, in fact, trustworthy. Sometimes they do not trust – or even distrust – those that they might, on closer inspection, see are trustworthy (or that journalists or others think they ought to see as trustworthy). 

But whether well-founded or not, trust in news is, from the perspective of journalists and news media who face an often sceptical public, what sociologists call a ‘social fact’, famously defined as ‘manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control’ (Durkheim 1982: 52). 

This means that trust, both at the brand level and at the general level, influences the role news can and does play in society. Journalists and media organisations have both pragmatic reasons to care – ‘trust can be a key to unlocking user revenue’ as Agnes Stenbom, the head of IN/LAB at Schibsted puts it1 – and more principled reasons to care, as years of research has documented how people who trust the news less are less likely to believe in the information it presents and learn from it (see Altay et al. 2023 for an overview). 

Individual reporters and editors will not necessarily agree with – let alone like – how they, their colleagues, and their competitors are seen by members of the public. And trust is not, in itself, a measure of the value of what journalists do, just as earning it is not always the most important thing journalists can or should aspire to. But public perceptions of trust are important in themselves. In people’s relations with journalism and the news media, as in their relations with politics and much else, perception is a consequential part of reality. 

Much of the public has a similar view on trust in news media 

Because we know that many journalists and editors care whether people trust the news or not, we have long tracked this at a general level by asking people whether they feel they can trust most news most of the time. While there is significant variation by country – and in some countries significant variation by, for example, political orientation – overall trust in news in many cases varies less by gender, age, income, and education (as well as by political orientation, as we will discuss in more detail in the last part of this chapter) than one might assume.  

Generally, younger people, people with low income, and people with lower levels of formal education tend to trust the news less. These are also groups that are often less well served by the news media, and generally less likely to think that the media cover people like them fairly, as we showed in our Digital News Report 2021. 

But looking across respondents who identify as being politically on the left, in the centre, or on the right, at the aggregate, there is little difference when looking at data from all our respondents (though there are partisan differences in some individual countries). 

Much of the public highlights similar factors underpinning trust in news 

In this year’s Digital News Report, we add further nuance to the work we have done over the years on trust in news by exploring what factors different members of the public say matter the most to them when it comes to deciding which news outlets to trust.  

This is another step that builds on years of research documenting how trust in news is often highly dependent on political context, correlated with interpersonal trust and trust in other institutions in society. In some countries and at the level of individual brands, trust is often intertwined with political partisanship. It also sometimes in part reflects the volume of media criticism people see, often strategically targeted at independent news media and individual journalists by political actors who use social media and other channels to try to undermine those they see as challenges to their agenda.2

As part of our survey, we ask all respondents about eight different possible factors that we have derived from qualitative research we have done in the past, from existing academic work, and from input from journalists keen to better understand the drivers of trust in news. (They are not exhaustive, but cover several different factors known to influence people’s relationship with news.) 

Trust factors included in our survey

How important or unimportant are the following to you when it comes to deciding which news outlets to trust? Whether:  

  • they have a long history 

  • they have high journalistic standards 

  • they are too negative 

  • they are biassed 

  • they exaggerate or sensationalise 

  • they are transparent about how the news is made 

  • their values are the same as mine 

  • they represent people like me fairly

The eight factors include some that many journalists associate with trustworthiness – such as high journalistic standards, transparency, freedom from bias, avoiding exaggeration and sensationalism, and representing people fairly.  

They also include factors that are not necessarily associated with trustworthiness from an editorial point of view, but that previous research suggests nonetheless are important in influencing whether people trust news – including whether news outlets have a long history, are seen as too negative, or have the same values as the respondent.  

All these factors are in the eye of the beholder, often necessarily so (there are limits to what people can realistically learn about, e.g., the journalistic standards of specific outlets). What matters when it comes to trust is whether people perceive someone as trustworthy. The ‘coercive power’ these beliefs exercise over journalists – as per the sociological notion of ‘social facts’ – rests on people’s perceptions having real-world consequences, including for which news media they give credence to, engage with, and rely on. 

While there is important variation from country to country, two things stand out looking at our data across all markets. First, while all these factors are important for many respondents (underlining the complexity of what engenders trust), several of those that are most frequently highlighted by respondents as important for how they think about trust are also central to how many journalists think about trustworthiness – in particular transparency, high journalistic standards, and a freedom from bias. Fairness, also often identified as central to trustworthy news reporting, is, in our survey, specifically concerned with whether respondents believe that people like themselves are being represented fairly, and this too is among the factors most frequently underlined as important.  

With data from 47 markets, there is necessarily a lot of important detail and variation, but it is worth highlighting that there is less cross-country variation when it comes to the emphasis on transparency, high standards, and representing people like me fairly than there is on the other factors. And while other factors are also important, they rarely rival these core values. Take the question of whether a news outlet’s values are ‘the same as mine’ – in none of the markets we cover do significantly more respondents identify this as an important factor in deciding which outlets to trust than identify transparency, high standards, and representing people fairly. 

Second, while it is sometimes assumed that different generations and different parts of the political spectrum think very differently about news, our data suggest that this is not actually the case when it comes to factors related to trust. 

If, for example, we compare younger respondents (aged under 35) with older ones (35 and over), the differences are quite small, and not always as one might expect – journalists and editors may associate concerns over social justice and perceived unfairness with younger people, but actually older people are more likely to say this is important for how they think about trust in news.  

Looking more closely at smaller subgroups, people who are more affluent, more highly educated, older, and more on the right politically are more likely to insist on the importance of people like them being represented fairly – our data thus provide quite a different picture from the impression some seem to have of discontent driven by younger, aggrieved lefties. 

With some minor differences, the pattern we see when looking at different generations also holds for education, income, and, as shown in the chart, for gender.  

This relative lack of variation is in itself a striking finding. Almost everything about how people use and think about news is deeply shaped by basic socio-economic factors such as age, income, and education, and people’s relations with media are often influenced by political orientation. But this is not the case for how people think about trust in news overall.  

Thus, our research suggests that much of the public has much in common in terms of what they want from news, and what they want is at least somewhat aligned with what many journalists and media would like to offer them. What varies is not so much which factors people highlight. They are strikingly similar. What varies are the conclusions they come to, reflecting often very different experiences with the news. 

When trust in news is low, the issue is thus generally not that people do not know what to look for. It is that many do not feel they are getting it. If they are right, news has a product problem. If they are wrong, news has a communications problem. 

‘The other divide’ – how political orientation and interest in politics intersects with trust in news  

While our data challenge the idea that younger people think very differently about trust in news from how older people think about it, and suggest education, income, and gender matter less than they do in some other respects, they do underline the importance of people’s relationship with politics – but not in the way that is often assumed. 

Many journalists operate in polarised political environments. Given that many of the most engaged news users – and of the most aggressively expressive voices on social media – are highly partisan, and given that some prominent politicians on the right (e.g., Donald Trump) and sometimes on the left (e.g., Andrés Manuel López Obrador) routinely attack the media, it is often presumed that people on the right think very differently about trust in news from those on the left or in the political centre.  

Certainly they often do when it comes to individual news media brands, and in some countries when it comes to trust in news overall. But they do not when it comes to what factors matter for them in deciding which news outlets to trust. 

Differences between often highly engaged partisans on the right and on the left, or for that matter those with more centrist political orientations, are very small in our data. Instead, the most important political divide in how people think about what factors shape their trust in news is what political scientists call ‘the other divide’, the far less immediately obvious divide between those people who make politics a central part of their lives and those who do not (Krupnikov and Ryan 2022). 

One way to capture this is to break down our respondents by political orientation. Across all markets covered, 15% of our respondents identify as very or fairly left-wing, 14% as very or fairly right-wing, and 50% centre or slightly to the left- or right-of-centre. The remaining 20% answer ‘don’t know’ when asked about their political orientation.  

In discussions often focused on partisan division, this latter, large group is sometimes overlooked. Younger people, people with limited formal education, and people with lower incomes are more likely to be part of it. (Just as they are likely to trust the news less than the public at large.) It is also a group that is over-represented among consistent news avoiders and casual users, so often these are people who have a tenuous connection not only with conventional party politics, but also with the news. 

Just 28% of the respondents who answer ‘don’t know’ when asked about their political orientation say they think they can trust most news most of the time – compared to 43% of those on the left, 42% in the centre, and 45% on the right. And, as the next chart shows, they are far less likely to name any of the eight factors included in our survey as important for how they decide which (if any) news outlets to trust. This often overlooked large minority not only trusts the news less, they are also less sure about how to make up their minds about whom to trust. 

Further illustrating this point, we can shift from political position to political interest. If we compare, across 47 markets, those who say they are interested in politics (27% of the sample) with those who say they are not interested in politics (35%) we find very different levels of trust. Around half (50%) of those interested in politics say they trust most news most of the time compared to 32% of those not interested.  

The gaps in terms of which factors, if any, people identify as important are aligned with those outlined earlier in this chapter. Our qualitative research suggests that those that are not interested in politics are also much less sure about how to even begin to make up their mind about news media that many see as completely intertwined with, even indistinguishable from, political institutions that they often feel distant or even alienated from. 

Securing trust in news calls for different approaches for different parts of the public 

Across the world, our data thus capture two important things. First, most people think in broadly similar terms about what are the most important factors when it comes to deciding which news outlets to trust – transparency, high standards, freedom from bias, and treating people fairly. These are things many journalists aspire to live up to, and for these journalists, it is encouraging to see that there is such an overlap between how many reporters and much of the public think about what makes news worth trusting. The challenge for news media when it comes to winning and maintaining trust is to show that they live up to these expectations. 

In some countries, trust in news is heavily influenced by politics, and people’s trust in individual news brands is often influenced by whether they perceive the outlet in question as editorially aligned with their own political values (or at least not antithetical to them). 

But generally, across differences in age, gender, and to a large extent across differences in education, income, and political orientation in terms of left, centre, and right, most people think in very similar terms about what matters for trust in news – even though they sometimes come to different conclusions both about news in general and particular news outlets. Many might appreciate that some outlets have values that are the same as their own. But when it comes to what people say is decisive for which outlets they trust, this factor is far less frequently mentioned than core issues around transparency, standards, bias, and fairness.  

Second, however, for a large minority of the public with a distant relation to politics – a fifth of our respondents don’t know where they stand in conventional political terms – trust in news is much lower, many of them are less clear about what might help engender trust, and their connection with news is generally more precarious. The same goes for the overlapping group of respondents who are not interested in politics – more than a third. 

The challenge for news media with this part of the public is to overcome the distance and convince them that news is engaging, interesting, and valuable enough to spend time with – and on that basis perhaps over time earn their trust as well. 


1 Our own work includes the three-year Trust in News-project with extensive research across Brazil, India, the UK, and the US (details here), and last year’s Digital News Report data on media criticism and the relationship between press freedom and public trust in news (More here).

2 See Schibsted.

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