The past year, media has been dominated by conversations on the rise of misinformation and decline in media’s credibility. But while trust in media is in a precarious situation in many countries, it may not be as dire as some think.
As a recent Pew survey found, trust is low, but people around the world still want unbiased news and believe news plays an important role in the public sphere. Despite the difficulties facing journalists and the media sector, our report Bridging the Gap: Rebuilding Citizen Trust in Media found that there are surprising signs of hope, particularly in countries that have had to openly battle misinformation in media for far longer than the United States.
In countries like the U.S., some people no longer see the news as reliable because of worries about fake news and echo chambers or concerns about partisanship in media. These topics are important to include them in the discussion around public trust, but the greater question now is how to fix the problem.
For the report commissioned by Open Society Foundation’s Program on Independent Journalism, we interviewed and collected data from 17 organizations, including Argentinian fact-checking website Chequeado, Middle Eastern news and commentary website Raseef22, Liberian investigative news site the Premium Times, regional news site Juzne Vesti in Serbia and investigative and data journalism nonprofit Correct!v in Germany. We wanted to learn more about the current environment for independent journalists as well as their approach to building closer relationships with their communities.
The vast majority of those we interviewed hope to produce news that’s both relevant and actionable for their audiences. These journalists said they publish fact-based journalism in the belief that it can slowly strengthen their relationship with audiences. However, some media outlets find themselves competing with tabloid news, fake news stories, or government-sanctioned narratives, making it difficult for quality reporting to be heard.
Most of these organizations are passionate about trying new ways to reach out to their readers. For example, Chequeado finds that GIF and video explainers can help attract readers who don’t typically read the news. Raseef22 created a blog to promote citizen reporting. German news site Krautreporter, which runs as a collective, often relies on their readers as sources of information and expertise.
While outlets are trying new approaches to reach readers, it’s not easy to measure the effect their efforts have on reader trust. It’s also important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all explanation behind distrust of media; the reasons behind distrust can differ vastly country to country. Political partisanship, internal corruption, government propaganda, lack of funding for journalism — all are factors that color the way press is perceived.
The reach for some of these organizations is low and journalists are struggling to build sustainable business models. Despite this, these organizations are working to act as a beacon of light for young journalists who want to strengthen their skills. Serbia’s Juzne Vesti has started piloting training courses with young journalists, and the Premium Times hosts three-day intensive programs at major Nigerian universities. The hope is not that students will work at their organizations, but that armed with training, they can improve the quality of journalism in media outlets throughout their respective countries.
One of the greatest challenges for independent media is funding. Sustainable and long-term business plans were on the minds of almost everyone we interviewed. Some are experimenting with paywalls or memberships/subscriptions, and a select few have had success with crowdfunding. Their ability to write fact-based news depends just as much on their financial sustainability, as it does on social or state pressures.
It’s difficult to predict the long-term futures of the outlets we profiled, and whether small media organizations can have enough impact to turn around media’s public perception. However, their existence sets an example to counteract negative attitudes toward media in their communities.
To find out more, you can explore the entire Bridging the Gap report, written by Anya Schiffrin, Beatrice Santa-Wood, Susanna De Martino, Ellen Hume and Nicole Pope. The report includes qualitative and quantitative findings related to the survey, as well as literature reviews on trust in media and media literacy.