Trust in the media

Has trust in the British media “collapsed”?

On 25th April, a Number 10 spokesperson claimed:

Public confidence in the media has collapsed during this emergency partly because of ludicrous stories such as this.

This article examines that claim about public confidence, or trust.

Trust is a complicated topic. There is no present evidence of a ‘collapse’ in trust in the British media. Trust differs depending on what kind of journalists researchers ask about.

What is trust?

Trust has many meanings. Prof Russell Hardin describes trust as “encapsulated interest”, with a three-part relationship:

  • Placing trust: a person placing trust must be capable of doing so.
  • Trustworthiness: In general, the trustee needs to show honesty and reliability, enabling trust.
  • Context: Trust is rarely unconditional. We generally entrust people and organisations to do specific things.

As Ipsos MORI’s report on trust highlights, the question becomes: ‘who trusts who to do what?’

No present signs

YouGov ran frequent questions about how much people trust others “to tell the truth”. Respondents could answer ‘a great deal’, ‘a fair amount’, ‘not much’, ‘not at all’, or that they don’t know.

To speak truth to power, people must trust you to speak truth.

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The Sun and the Mirror are examples of “red-top tabloid newspapers”. (Image: YouGov)

In their latest internet panel poll, YouGov contacted 1,761 GB adults on 26–27th April 2020. The central estimate of ‘a great deal’ or ‘fair amount’ of trust in BBC News journalists was 47%. This estimate is higher than their survey estimate at the start of December 2019.

There is uncertainty surrounding these survey estimates. Surveys provide estimates, subject to many sources of potential error.

Yet, this polling series gives no signs of cataclysmic changes in public trust.

Chris Curtis (YouGov) and Prof Jennings (Southampton) identify partisan fractures in trust. Conservative voters have become less trusting of journalists in “upmarket” newspapers.

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The Times, The Telegraph, and The Guardian are examples of “upmarket” newspapers. (Image: YouGov)

In the latest survey, an estimated 29% of Conservative voters trust these journalists. By comparison, an estimated 46% of 2019 Labour voters trust “upmarket” newspaper journalists.

Wording and Concepts

Question wording matters.

In October to December 2017, Pew Research Center ran telephony polls in Europe. For UK adults, their survey found a low level of trust in the British media. In Pew’s sample, 32% said they trusted the news media “a lot” or “somewhat”.

Asking about general trust in news outlets, there were sharp disparities. Whilst an estimated 79% trusted the BBC, only 24% held general trust in the Daily Mirror.

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The Pew survey estimated net neutral trust in HuffPost. (Image: Pew Research Center)

This Pew question shows a similar pattern to YouGov’s surveys, but with different levels. General trust in an news outlet differs to trust in journalists to tell the truth.

Survation conducted an internet panel poll on 16–23rd April 2020. The company asked about trust to “provide you with information about COVID-19”. Response options were on an 11-point scale.

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Of UK adults giving 7–10 on Survation’s trust scale, the lowest share was for The Sun. (Image: Survation)

Again, there is a clear distinction between trust in broadcasters and tabloid newspapers. This is consistent across survey modes, question wordings, and response options.

The Long Game

Ipsos MORI have a long-running survey series about trust. In face-to-face meetings, interviewers ask:

Now I will read you a list of different types of people. For each would you tell me if you generally trust them to tell the truth, or not?

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This general trust increases for most professions. (Image: Ipsos MORI)

This question is about general trust, for the broad category of ‘journalists’. Estimated trust has been increasing in an irregular fashion since the 1990s.

Journalism is one of the least-trusted professions that Ipsos MORI ask about.

YouGov’s survey series suggests an opposite view. By breaking journalists into their outlets, these polls suggest an erosion in trust.

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In 2003, YouGov estimated 65% of GB adults trusted “upmarket” newspapers. (Image: Will Jennings/Twitter)

One possible explanation rests on the broadness of ‘journalists’. Saying ‘journalist’ might evoke more entrusted forms over time. General trust in ‘journalists’ can rise, whilst trust in types of journalists falls.

Trust is a complicated concept. Opinion polling to support claims of ‘collapse’ in trust in the British media is not yet evident. There is a chronic issue of trust in the British media. This problem differs by what kinds of journalists a survey question asks about.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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