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June 23, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:23am

Trust in UK news media boosted since pandemic but still lower than pre EU referendum

By Charlotte Tobitt

The proportion of people in the UK who say they trust the news media from 28% to 36% in a year – with coverage of the coronavirus pandemic possibly playing a role.

But trust levels are still lower than they were before the EU referendum in 2016, when 50% said they trusted the UK media.

The latest figures placed the UK 33rd out of the 46 countries involved in the rankings. Each had a sample size of about 2,000 with surveys conducted by Yougov.

The findings were revealed in the latest Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, published on Wednesday.

It found that in the UK 44% of people said they trust the news they use, while 15% trust news in search and 6% trust news on social media platforms.

Overall across 92,372 people surveyed in 46 countries, trust grew by six percentage points on average since before the pandemic with 44% of people saying they trust most news most of the time.

Half now say they trust the news they use most often themselves, up four percentage points.

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This partly reverses widespread falls in trust in the media thought to have been driven at least in part by “increasingly bitter political and social debates”.

Meanwhile, overall trust in news on social and search platforms around the world remained “broadly stable” on 24% and 34% respectively.

The report’s lead author Nic Newman said: “We can speculate that this higher trust in the news – and in the sources people use themselves – could be related to extensive coverage of coronavirus.

“The focus on factual reporting during the Covid-19 crisis may have made the news seem more straightforward, while the story has also had the effect of squeezing out more partisan political news.

“This may be a temporary effect, but in almost all countries we see audiences placing a greater premium on accurate and reliable news sources.”

Interest waning in news

However, there has been a 17 percentage point drop since 2016 in the proportion in the UK who say they are very or extremely interested in the news, the joint biggest decline with Spain.

Overall many began to find coronavirus news “repetitive, confusing and even depressing”.

A 30-year-old woman in a UK focus group said: “I must admit that first of all I started watching it, really engrossed in it, and then as time went on, I found it quite depressing so I just cut it off.”

Similarly a 58-year-old man in the US said: “I’ve consumed less TV and radio because if it’s consistently Covid, Covid, Covid, or consistently
political fluff, then I just turn it off.”

Newman called this historic decline in interest “worrying”, with under-25s less likely to visit a news website or be committed to impartial news, and more likely to say they use social media as their main news source.

Trust in UK news brands

In the UK the BBC remains the most trusted news brand, with 62% of people ranking it between six to ten on a ten-point scale. It is followed by ITV News on 61%, Channel 4 News on 58%, the Financial Times on 56% and Sky News on 54%.

Newman attributed the dominance of broadcasters to their strict impartiality requirements.

This compares with the partisan popular newspaper market at the bottom of the rankings which puts The Sun as the least trusted brand of those included in the survey, with a trust score of 13% and distrust of 64%.

The Sun, and its rivals like the Mail, are particularly distrusted by the young and by those on the political left, Newman said.

The trust scores appear to align with audience trends as BBC, ITV and Sky News all increased their weekly reach but weekly use of printed newspapers fell by seven percentage points to 15%.

But the Covid bump for TV news from 55% to 60% masks a historic decline which has taken TV from being the biggest source of news with use by three-quarters of people in 2013.

Meanwhile social media use for news in the UK has doubled from 20% to 41% over the same time period.

Trust outside the UK: From Finland to the US

The only countries in Europe with lower news trust scores than the UK were France, Slovakia and Hungary all on 30%, and Greece and Bulgaria each on 32%.

Finland was the country with the highest trust in the media at 65% while the US has the lowest levels at 29%, which Reuters Institute said reflected the "divisive" presidential election and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd last year which sparked nationwide protests.

The US was one of only a few countries not to see a growth in trust in the past year.

The report said: "Political divides fuel much of this mistrust in the United States, with those who self-identify on the right being more than twice as likely to distrust the news compared with those on the left.

"Resentment and anger are stoked by polarised TV networks such as right-leaning Fox News, One America News, and Newsmax and left-leaning CNN and MSNBC."

Reuters Institute director and report co-author Rasmus Kleis Nielsen said: "This year’s survey finds evidence that some brands have benefited from a desire for reliable information around the pandemic – both in terms of higher reach, higher trust, and more paying subscribers.

"While the effects are uneven, do not apply to all brands or all countries, and may not last after the crisis is over, these are positive findings from publishers’ point of view."

Perceptions of news and misinformation

The results were described as a "vote of confidence" for impartial news.

Three-quarters (74%) of respondents across the globe said they still prefer news that reflects a range of views and lets them decide what to think, while two-thirds think news outlets should try to be neutral on every issue.

Some younger groups however think "impartiality" is not appropriate or desirable in some circumstances, such as on social justice issues.

In the UK under-25s said they felt least represented by the media with just a fifth saying they were treated fairly compared to half of over-55s.

Meanwhile, both the left (44%) and the right (40%) claimed their political views were unfairly covered by the media.

Almost six in ten (58%) of the global sample expressed fears they would see misinformation online, up two percentage points.

The highest level of concern was around the behaviour of politicians (29%) followed by ordinary people (16%), activists (15%), journalists (11%) and foreign governments (9%).

And the biggest concern is in Africa where three-quarters (74%) are worried about misinformation. This is followed by Latin America (65%), North America (63%), Asia (59%) and lowest in Europe (54%).

Picture: Shutterstock

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