Low levels of trust in journalism are correlated with lack of knowledge among the public about the news media industry, according to a new survey from press regulator Impress.
The research, which was carried out in collaboration with academics from the Universities of Derby and Leeds, surveyed more than 3,000 members of the public online and carried out in-depth focus groups. The aim was to understand trust levels, media literacy, how regulation could improve confidence and trust and how people interact with the news.
About half (49%) of the people surveyed said that they trusted the news media. The share that trusted journalists specifically was lower at 39% – higher than an Ipsos survey published in November showing that 29% of people in the UK trust journalists to tell the truth.
Trust in journalists was slightly higher among people with more education and in the youngest (18-24) and oldest age groups (75+).
More than half of respondents admitted to having low levels of news literacy - the ability to critically process, analyse and evaluate news. Respondents were especially unsure about how decisions are made in newsrooms, how editorial standards are applied and how regulation works.
Over half (54%) of people for example said that they have no knowledge of how journalists choose which stories to cover.
The same proportion also said that they had no knowledge of how news media and journalism in the UK are regulated. Awareness of how print media is regulated was particularly low with just 16% correctly identifying the role of IPSO and 7% for Impress.
Most of the public said that they felt decisions on which stories to cover are made by editors based on what is important to news organisations. Reader priorities were thought to be far less important to news media than the views of owners and news organisations’ own political agendas.
Linking the two, the researchers said both the survey and focus groups showed that while several factors influence trust - such as someone’s willingness to trust other institutions in society - when audiences understand how news works they are more likely to trust it.
Almost two-thirds (63%) of people with a perceived low level of understanding of journalism said they did not trust journalists - compared to 52% of people who claimed to know more about the industry.
Just 30% of people who said they did not know very much about regulation said they trusted journalists, compared to 50% of people who said they understood media regulation.
Julie Firmstone, associate professor of media and communication at the University of Leeds, said: "The report and the research demonstrate the importance of efforts to increase levels of news literacy among audiences, showing that when people feel knowledgeable about how news is regulated and how journalism works, they are more likely to trust the news it produces."
Respondents reported that they felt there was a large gap between the roles that journalism could play in UK society and the roles it currently plays. Ninety percent of people for example thought that journalists’ role was to be accurate compared to 64% of people who felt this was currently happening.
Similarly just 27% of people thought that journalists should advocate for a political party, compared to 51% of people who thought that this was occurring.
"The UK public are disillusioned with journalism and struggle to confidently understand the role that it plays in society," said the report.
The survey found a similar gap when it comes to the values that news should be guided by.
Although the majority of respondents agreed that news should be guided by values such as openly admitting mistakes and separating facts and opinions, fewer people thought this was actually happening. Some 46% of people thought journalists and news organisation openly admitted mistakes.
Declining levels of trust in news are well-documented. Last week's Ipsos survey showed journalists remained the five least-trusted profession in the UK. This year's Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found just over a third (34%) of people trusted UK news, down from 51% in 2015.
Despite this the public still has high hopes for the news industry, according to Impress' findings.
"Disillusionment, low trust, and low literacy present a significant challenge to the news sector and the future of news in the UK. But it is not a public rejection of news principles or its various roles in society," said the report.
The report called for more information and education to meet the public’s demand for better understanding and transparency on how news is gathered and reported. Lifting journalism standards were also crucial, said the report.
Two thirds (66%) of the public believe that knowing more about news production can help improve trust, while 70% believe that knowing more about news regulation would do the same.
"The message couldn’t be clearer. If we want to improve trust in journalism the whole industry needs to engage more openly with the public about news values, about how high standards can be achieved, and about the role regulation can play in maintaining those standards," said Richard Ayre, chairman of Impress.
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