How much trust in media do we need?

distrustIn the face of ‘fake news’ and disinformation, people’s trust in media seems to be declining. But do we need to have more trust in media, or less?


We are all less trusting these days, or so it seems. Recent concerns about ‘fake news’ and disinformation have fed into growing anxieties about an apparent decline in people’s trust, not just in the media, but in a whole range of other social institutions. These concerns have a very long history. Modernity and mass society have often been seen to produce alienation, disengagement and what Durkheim called ‘anomie’. A lack of trust may be a symptom of what Ulrich Beck called ‘the risk society’, a world in which we increasingly feel vulnerable to forces that are beyond our control.

infocrisisIn recent years, however, the advent of social media has added fresh impetus to these arguments. For example, a recent report by the London School of Economics ‘Commission on Trust, Truth and Technology’ presents a fairly bleak picture of the current ‘information crisis’. Rather than the utopia of creative self-expression and democratic participation envisaged by most of its early advocates, it argues that the internet has led to ‘five giant evils’: confusion, cynicism, fragmentation, irresponsibility and apathy.

It’s hard to separate cause and effect here, but changes in the media environment have certainly reinforced a wider decline in trust in established authorities – for example, in experts of various kinds, and particularly in politicians. Famously, it was the leading Brexiteer Michael Gove who claimed that the British people ‘have had enough of experts’ (or at least those experts he happened to dislike). Meanwhile, trust in politicians appears to be at an all-time low; and trust in media organizations themselves is barely much better – although, as we’ll see, it’s important to take care with the evidence on these points.

As ever, there is a danger of shooting the messenger here. Amid the chaos of the UK’s Brexit debate, it’s hard to see what politicians have done to earn or deserve our trust – and that’s not the fault of the media. However, the growing spread of disinformation, and the cacophony of ‘alternative truths’ that are spread online – which some have called ‘information pollution’ or ‘truth decay’ – have almost certainly undermined people’s trust in the media themselves. And arguably, the more we understand about phenomena like invisible algorithms and filter bubbles and online surveillance, the more distrustful we are likely to become.

distrustWhat can be done about this situation? Some have argued that we need to reinforce the trustworthiness and credibility of mainstream media. Yet others argue that even the ‘quality’ press and respected public media channels like the BBC are actually part of the problem. Meanwhile, some propose that a form of ‘digital literacy’ might be a possible solution – although once again, others suggest that it will only contribute to the problem, by undermining trust and encouraging cynicism.

There seems to be a fundamental contradiction here. On the one hand, a healthy democracy depends upon trust: we need to trust our elected representatives, and we have to rely on trusted sources of information. Yet on the other hand, we don’t want people to place blind faith in authority: we want people to be sceptical. Too much trust is a bad thing, but so is too little. So how much trust do we need – and especially for those of us concerned with education, how much trust do we want to cultivate? Are people who are more ‘media literate’ more or less likely to trust the media?


Is trust in decline?

How good is the evidence about the decline in trust? One source that’s frequently cited here is the annual ‘Trust Barometer’ produced by Edelman Intelligence, part of the world’s largest public relations company. The Barometer regularly shows that trust in media, and in politicians, is very low. However, these figures are hard to interpret, especially as there are very erratic fluctuations from one year to the next. In the case of media, the picture is quite uneven: media are among the least trusted of all the institutions cited, but in 2018, trust in traditional media appeared to bounce back (although trust in social media continued to decline). In 2019, more people were found to be engaging with news, but equally a growing minority was actively avoiding it.

Evaporation of trustThe Edelman Barometer also suggests that there are significant differences between nations in this respect – which should encourage us to be wary of global generalizations. Some of the more interesting findings here are to do with ‘trust inequality’: there are wide disparities in levels of trust both between countries, and within them, between the ‘informed’ public and the population in general. For example, in the UK in 2018, there was the largest difference in the world in this respect: 64% of ‘informed’ respondents placed their trust in key institutions, as against 40% of the population at large.

There is also evidence that trust in ‘experts’ is declining, although again this is very uneven, and it depends which experts we’re talking about. Research from 2017 by the UK polling organization YouGov suggests that trust in politicians is predictably low, although trust in nurses, doctors and scientists is generally high. (Unfortunately, the media were not included in this study, although it clearly makes a difference whether we learn about the experts in question at first hand, or via media of various kinds.) This research also points to significant differences in terms of politics and class. Those who voted for Brexit, and working class people, were much less trusting, especially of scientists, civil servants and economists (and, curiously, of weather forecasters as well). Once again, this would suggest that, for all sorts of reasons, levels of trust are very uneven: a global measure may tell us very little.

Edelman social mediaWhen it comes to media, overall levels of trust are low, but once again, the picture is complex. In his ‘alternative McTaggart lecture’ at Edinburgh last year, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn claimed that ‘the British people simply don’t trust the media’. There’s some truth in this, at least from opinion polling, and in relation to certain media. Research by the Reuters Institute and by the Pew Charitable Trust has found that UK newspapers are the least trusted in Western Europe – although other research suggests that this varies significantly according to different newspapers. In general, people are inclined to trust the newspapers they choose to read, although this is more the case with upmarket newspapers than with the popular press – which seems to be quite highly distrusted, even by its own readers. According to Pew, trust in news media seems to be correlated with trust in government, although there’s little evidence as regards any causal relationship.

As I’ve implied, there are difficulties in interpreting this kind of data. Opinion polling and generalized statistical measures may give us relatively little insight into the complexity and diversity of trust. I may trust some politicians and some media sources more than others, for different reasons, and on different issues: but ticking a box to say I trust politicians or the media in general can’t capture this.

There’s also a danger in assuming trust is a fixed thing, a matter of either/or – either we trust, or we don’t. Trust is not just a straightforward psychological attribute. It depends on context, and it can very from one situation to another. Trust and distrust – or cynicism and faith – may co-exist. Where and how we decide to place our trust is contingent and flexible. Perhaps what really matters is what we do on the basis of our trust or distrust; and there are a great many other factors that may intervene between our response to a news report or a political speech and any subsequent action, like voting or demonstrating.

We might even question the idea that trust, in and of itself, is automatically a good thing. Perhaps we no longer need as much trust today as we might have done in more stable, pre-modern societies. In a more complex, diverse, media-saturated world, we might do better to think in terms of developing strategies for managing risk, rather than simply promoting trust in already established authorities.


The place of ‘news literacy’

The media are by no means the only factor that might be contributing to a decline in trust: the research I’ve cited would suggest that growing political polarization and social inequality may also play a part. It’s likely that there is a dynamic mix of factors at stake.

Instant message sent by Zuckerberg in Facebook’s early days, as reported by Business Insider (May 13, 2010)

Nevertheless, what we might call ‘information literacy’ is clearly important here; and this is where education can play a role. A report by the Rand Corporation suggests that one key reason for the apparent decline in trust is the failure of the education system to keep up with the changing media and information landscape. The current controversy around disinformation is leading to growing calls in high places for ‘digital literacy’ – although this term itself isn’t entirely helpful. If it means anything, digital literacy is clearly not just a matter of technical or procedural skills; and it is not necessarily developed simply by the activity of using or creating digital media. It has to involve critical understanding.

Digital literacy, news literacy – or, as I would prefer, media literacy – should encourage a necessary scepticism. However, opponents of media education like Microsoft’s Danah Boyd argue that it is actually part of the problem. Boyd blames media literacy education for increasing cynicism and undermining trust. In fact, there’s no evidence to support this – and indeed no evidence that media literacy is taught widely enough to have made much difference at all. Of course, media literacy education can play into a rather superficial cynicism, of the ‘don’t-believe-what-you-read-in-the-papers’ variety; but experienced media educators know well enough how to get beyond this.

Meanwhile, some in the media industries have responded by attempting to restore our trust in authoritative media sources. Initiatives like the Trust Project and Newsguard aim to establish ‘trust indicators’, and to promote greater transparency and stronger ethical codes. This position is harder to sustain at a time when even respected news outlets are under attack from both left and right, and when traditional media (and especially newspapers) are in decline. Donald Trump famously refers to the New York Times and CNN as ‘fake news’; but many on the left are equally dismissive of what they scathingly refer to as the ‘mainstream media’ (including, for example, the BBC and the Guardian).

Ultimately, I don’t think there is an easy answer here. Too little trust is dysfunctional, but too much can also be dangerous. As educators, we need students to be critical, rather than merely cynical. We want them to analyse and question media, but we don’t want them to distrust or reject everything. So how much trust in media do we actually want or need?