Decide for Yourself What Journalism to Trust

The ‘Trust in Journalism’ debate was sparked by a Pew Report that means absolutely nothing, unless you like sitting on a steam-powered news train, facing backwards. Disregard it.

Markham Nolan


When Pew released its survey on trust in the media, there was more than a bit of gloating at who came last (It was Buzzfeed), and a lot of debate about what it means. The media world’s chin-strokers-in-chief wondered where all the trust leaked out, and how to put it back in. Should you trust the media elders to tell you whose news you should trust, and how? Let’s look.

The behaviour of a reader determines how they calculate trust. In the past, people chose one or two news organisations to trust, and committed to them by buying a paper or choosing one newscast over the other. Now, the delivery model has been blasted to smithereens and trust is not as closely bound to organisations as it once was. The new news consumer is a butterfly. They do not settle for long on any one news source. They don’t choose news as a bundle from one brand, rather, they flit in and out of news items from their social streams.

Arrival at a story is an act of trust, often sparked by a recommendation. There is, arguably, far more trust placed in the communities whose news recommendations we accept than in the news organisations who create that news. We trust our peers, we trust the filter bubbles we create for ourselves. We trust the algorithms which we (actively or passively) allow to access our histories and serve up more of the same. In the Pew Study, Google News is more ‘trusted’ than the New York Times, despite the fact that Google News doesn’t generate any news — it’s a largely algorithmic aggregation of what others produce. And hey, why not trust that? They know you better than you know yourself.

That’s Google News on the right, btw.

If something appears in my Facebook feed from someone I follow and trust, I generally trust that it’s worth consideration. If Nuzzel serves it up, I know that by metrics I defined, enough people have deemed it of value that I should read it. If @MagicRecs suggests a follow, I’ll click, seven times out of ten. If the recommendation sucks, if the story ends up being less than worthy of trust, that’s less likely to reflect badly on the brand than on the person who recommended it to me. Trust attaches to the recommender.

Trust is now like Pageviews. You earn it every day

How does a news organisation operate in that environment of detached trust and increased brand disloyalty? News organisations have to think of trust in the same way they think of pageviews. Editors now know that every story is sold separately — the bundle is dead. Each story earns the trust and time of the reader individually. You have to assume that you earn whatever small slice of trust attaches to a story every single time they arrive at your site. When you earn that trust, you get paid back by your story being pushed out to their trusted circles. And over time, sure, there’s longer-term trust to be earned for your brand.

This is why journalists get so worked up about getting their stories to thrive on Facebook, or being blocked from doing so by shifts in the algorithm. They’re desperate to get their content into people’s circles of trust. If a story becomes the focal point of a conversation, every share is a bolstering of trust. Facebook shares (trusted recommendations) are valuable, they are sticky because they are a commitment by the sharer and the more something is shared, the broader the circle of trust that sees it .

Don’t trust Pew’s definition of trust

There problems with trust as defined in the Pew Research study, however, or rather trust as not defined by the Pew Research study.

For starters, what is trust, for the purposes of this survey? What are we measuring by asking respondents which organisations they trust? The study is about political polarisation, so does ‘trust’ mean ‘this news organisation represents my personal political standpoint’? ‘I am comfortable with the views expressed by this organisation in its news coverage’? If so, that’s a problem, because trust should be based on the perceived proportion of empirical truth in an organisation’s coverage, not how closely it adheres to the viewer’s comfort zone or worldview. But then again, trust as defined in the Pew study has little to do with actual trustworthiness, less again with truthiness. It says it’s measuring:

[H]ow open people are to the political news and information put forth by various outlets, including those they do not actively consume.

Openness to something is not trust, and trust is, admittedly, a pretty slithery thing to define. I trust Bill O’Reilly to spew polemic every time he appears on television. I trust USA Today to dilute news to the point of homeopathy so that it doesn’t really interfere with breakfast buffet decision-making in hotels around the country. And I trust Jon Stewart to skewer absurdity five days a week and lean to the left. I trust only one of those three to be accurate and well-researched on a consistent basis.

Trust, in the Pew sense, is an understanding of what each news brand promises, and a measure of how consistently they meet that promise, and how that means they’re welcomed by the respondent. It’s not real trust.

Alright, fine, let’s go build some actual trust

So the conversation moved to building trust. Google News’ Richard Gingras argues, among other things, that all news organisations should publish ethics statements and statements of expertise for authors. This smacks of a yearning for another data point to feed into the Google News algorithm to help it determine what’s trustworthy, and pass that on to the reader. Given how much trust people already put in that algorithm and others like it, and how angry journalism gets when they don’t appear to work (read the comments), I suppose that’s not a bad thing. But at the reader/article nexus, these statements won’t make any practical difference. No reader is going to click into an article and, before reading, look for and/or read an ethics statement or expertise note, and then make a decision on whether or not to proceed based on their subsequent findings. That simply ignores user behaviour. Understanding user behaviour is the key to winning in journalism in the next ten years, so if trust is important, why would we spend valuable time ignoring the user in doing so?

Ethics statements should be nailed to the wall internally, for sure, and baked into the journalism we do every day to make it trustworthy. Publishing them widely for checking by readers is fine, but will do far more for supposed trust-based elevation-by-SEO than for the journalism itself, and to suggest they’ll matter to the vast majority of modern readers is simply not true.

The Trust Equation is Evolving

Let’s look at the headline loser of this so-called trust survey, butt-of-the-joke, bottom-of-the-heap Buzzfeed, whose untrustworthy journalism is crushed under the weight of all the trustworthy news organisations (Fox! Breitbart!) who outrank it.

Buzzfeed’s ranking is a giant honking siren of how irrelevant the survey is. Of the organisations included in the survey, it’s the only one of the new breed of news outlets chosen. No Vice, No Gawker, no Vocativ, no Vox, Fusion, Mashable nor 538. Screw those pesky under-30s. (How well represented were they in the survey? Hard to tell. Details on Pew’s methodology don’t include demographics)

Is Buzzfeed (and those like it) deserving of more trust than captured in this poll commissioned by the granit-collonade establishment? For its news, you betcha. Their foreign coverage, and often their political coverage, beats the pants of much of the mainstream on a regular basis. (Good note on that here, btw).

But this archaic way of measuring of trust doesn’t work for new media organisations, because they are odd beasts which don’t have the nicely defined trustworthy shape of the trusted news establishment. How can you trust a listicle factory, FFS?

Where does trust come into play here, really?

Well, that’s a generational question. And it’s also a business model question. Old news models don’t pay because the generation before failed to future-proof the industry, so you have to figure out a new way to pay the electricity bills, and–guess what–it may not look like the news of old. The businesses doing good journalism may look hard to trust, by old measures, but not to the generation they’re built to serve.

Buzzfeed and Vice, to take the two most high-profile examples, have placed genuine, trustworthy journalism as hood ornaments on subtantial commercial vehicles which built their momentum via other means. For Buzzfeed it was memes, quizzes, all the frivolous entertainment material that props up their business model and gives them a firehose of young eyeballs. for Vice, it was a slightly seedier, but no less valid accumulation of youth culture cred over two decades of immersion. They powered the train with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, and then hitched on a carriage of journalism at the last stop. None of this takes away from the journalism, which sells itself as trustworthy on a story-by-story basis.

The younger you are, the more you trust these brands. That trust is built on a mutual understanding — I know they understand my demographic, I can see some transparency in how they communicate with the outside world. There is no ivory tower any more, it’s made of perspex. I sat in a room not long ago, and the further you went towards the young end of the spectrum of those assembled, the greater the trust in organisations like this was visible.

Emily Bell may have inadvertently put her finger on it in a tweet in which she says:

Accurate and good journalism is distrusted by those whose interests it damages

If there’s good, accurate journalism that isn’t being measured, or, worse, is being held up as untrustworthy by the old guard, could we argue that because the new models threaten their existence, they’re deemed untrustworthy by the establishment doing the measuring? I think so.

Rebuilding trust in news can’t be done by the old metrics. Trust is evolving. New generations trust news organistions for different reasons than did the outgoing greybeards of the news industry. The basis on which we calculate trust, the equation of trust has been redefined.

I should clarify. There’s one old metric that we can all trust. Truth. And any organisation that consistently focuses its journalists on uncovering that, regardless of its odd commercial shape or the results of bonkers surveys, is one that I’d trust.



Markham Nolan

Co-founder @getnoan || COO @ Recount Media // Priors: @WWE @cbsnews @storyful @vocativ @metroUK // ‘Ask not for whom the web trolls, it trolls for thee’ //