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Trust in the media is starting to make a comeback

Reproduced from a Gallup report; Chart: Axios Visuals

New studies suggest that efforts to bring transparency to media — including attempts by journalists to publicly defend their work, media literacy campaigns, more transparent funding and improved fact-checking partnerships — have helped the media recover a bit of trust with the public after hitting an all-time low in 2016.

  • The big picture: Transparency works. Even in areas where journalists and media companies never thought they needed to be so explicit, an effort to more clearly explain how their companies operate is helping.

The other side: While trust in the news media has recovered slightly since 2016, it still remains low compared to decades of prior research conducted by Gallup. This could be affected by the larger trends affecting confidence in many major U.S. institutions, which began to decline in 2005, per Gallup.

Driving the news: A new and first-of-its kind study from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication suggests that journalists can actually increase trust in the media by speaking out in defense of their profession while also doing more fact checking.

  • The study finds that when journalists don't fight back against a disproportionate number of attacks on their profession, consumers assume that they are conceding the point that they're biased.

Mike Caulfield, head of the Digital Polarization Initiative at the American Democracy Project, writes that "teaching media literacy works, and it helps mitigate the small mistakes that lead media consumers to radicalization."

  • To his point, a study last month from the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University found that those who trust the news are more likely to be able to spot fake news online.

Other evidence that transparency can work:

  • Reducing bias: A poll by Gallup and The Knight Foundation this year found that efforts to restore media trust among most Americans can work "particularly if those efforts are aimed at improving accuracy, enhancing transparency and reducing bias."
  • The study found that people are less likely to perceive a report or set of facts as being biased if they are unaware of the outlet producing them. It concludes that restoring trust in the news media may then require news companies to actually address and counter shared perceptions of bias and inaccuracy within partisan groups.
  • Transparency in funding can work, too, especially as more news organizations veer away from the advertising-funded model. "Companies now have to lead with their values and offer transparency in the process," writes Emily Bell, the founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. New efforts from publications like The Correspondent to crowdsource funding are helping shine transparency on the funding process.
  • The catch: there is a risk that memberships and subscriptions, like Fox News' new streaming platform Fox Nation, or new subscription efforts from left-leaning outlets like HuffPost or New York Media, end up creating an economic model in which some publications succumb to the political leanings of their paid subscribers. Bell also notes that there is likely going to be a compromise in servicing readers with subscriptions and memberships, just as much as advertisers.

What's next: Over two-thirds (69%) of U.S. adults who say they have lost trust in the news media over the past decade say their trust can be restored, according to Gallup's latest Indicators of News Media Trust study. Still, 30% of those who have lost trust — equivalent to 21% of all U.S. adults — say their trust in the media cannot be restored.

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