Scholars and practitioners of journalism tend to think about the “crisis of trust” in journalism as an issue of growing distrust. On the contrary, trust in news media is thriving, but it exists unequally and is often tied to a vision of authenticity, and a vision of journalism, that is far different than the journalism we require for a functioning democracy. In part this is due to changes in the source of trust in journalism—trust is no longer concretely tied to professionalized practice. We don’t necessarily trust the news because it is produced by professional journalists undertaking methodological and institutionalized practices. Instead, trust is relational. We build relationships of trust with news outlets, journalists, and the news itself, because it aligns with our vision of what journalism should be and should achieve—a vision that is increasingly ideological. Consequently, surveys of trust in journalism present a fractured picture of trust in news media and polarization over what should be considered a trusted news outlet. A centering of relational trust in journalism retains positive consequences, as seen in the “death of objectivity” and the rise of “engaged journalism.” However, changes in the source of news media trust have also brought about new markers of information credibility, such as personal authenticity, ideological transparency, and social media popularity, that allows partisan actors to spread dis- and misinformation under the guise of journalism.
Trust has become a vital tool in the spread of disinformation“Trust exists as a multidimensional relationship between audiences and a growing number of actors implicated in journalism and digital information dissemination more broadly.”
In order to counter general perceptions of distrust in news media, innovation within the profession and its academic counterpart has focused on refining mechanisms of “engagement” between audiences and news media, facilitating communication between audiences and outlets to better illuminate what information audiences want, how they wish to consume this information, and how journalists can better interact and build relationships with audiences to cement these conversations. Such moves have entrenched relational elements of trust by centering audience feedback as a driving force within newsrooms. Consequently, trust exists as a multidimensional relationship between audiences and a growing number of actors implicated in journalism and digital information dissemination more broadly. Yet these relationships are riddled with contradictions. The trade-offs required to balance trust across the network of actors that seek to build trust further complicates the democratic role of trust in news media.
The partisan polarization of trust in news media, and the gulf between audiences of “mainstream” news and highly partisan outlets, is one clear sign that trust in news media is increasingly grounded in a vision of relational trust—no longer solely tied to professionalism or journalism’s democratic ideals but is instead often a signal of partisan popularity. Measuring trust and distrust in news media therefore requires us to look beyond traditional notions of professional credibility and practice, and toward understanding these relationships.“Journalists are expected to sustain large social media followings on Twitter and other platforms to cement their credibility and marketability to news outlets.”
Properly attending to this “crisis” involves a reckoning with what trust actually does, including how relationships of trust between audiences and information sources can be used to spread bad information. Social media is increasingly being used as a platform for facilitating and sustaining the trust relationships that underpin journalism. Journalists are expected to sustain large social media followings on Twitter and other platforms to cement their credibility and marketability to news outlets. As a consequence, we are also seeing a rise in micro-celebrities acting as pseudo (often highly partisan) news sources.1Rebecca Lewis, “This Is What the News Won’t Show You”: YouTube Creators and the Reactionary Politics of Micro-celebrity,” Television & New Media 21, no. 2 (2020): 201–217. This new wave of pseudo-journalists, in addition to more traditional reporters, lean on notions of authenticity—primarily judged as an individual trait but also attached to organizational transparency and accountability—in their pursuit of trust. These news media influencers attempt to look and act like journalists, spreading information online much like their traditional counterparts and leveraging their large followings and hypervisibility as evidence that they are credible news sources. Questions therefore arise as to how notions of authenticity facilitate trust in news media, and in particular the extent to which the resulting relationships of trust work toward or against journalism’s democratic ideals.
Authenticity as a relational value
My research into digital journalism has explored how journalists conceive of trust and the routes they undertake to build trust in themselves, their outlets and their work.2Rachel E. Moran, “Subscribing to Transparency: Trust-Building Within Virtual Newsrooms on Slack,” Journalism Practice, June 16, 2020. Central to these explorations has been the use of social media as a platform through which outlets cannot only disseminate their work but also garner measurable feedback, quantify their audiences, and importantly, build relationships with readers. Partisan outlets—particularly right-leaning journalists, blogs, and news sites—have become adept at building parasocial (a.k.a. one-sided) and actual relationships between journalists and audiences via social media and leveraging these relationships to cultivate trust in their work. As highlighted, such trust is built not necessarily on journalistic credibility or authority and is not intrinsically linked to assessments of journalistic professionalism. Instead, trust relationships often rest on a sense of personal “authenticity”—a belief that the journalist in question is a transparent person with whom the audience maintains shared interests and ideological beliefs. Take for example, right-wing journalist and social media personality Andy Ngô, who retains a significant online following both on social media and Canadian outlet the Post Millennial, despite extensive criticism for misleading and unethical reporting. Ngô, however, is lauded by right-wing audiences for his provocative personality.
This is by no means a new phenomenon, but its expansion and centering via social media requires attention. Shifts in trust from an (at least superficial) objective assessment of professional markers of credibility toward overwhelmingly subjective, interpersonal judgements are emblematic of broader schisms within journalism. Crucially, a personalization of trust through assessments of individual authenticity and associated qualities exists parallel to a reckoning within journalism over the proper role of objectivity. The so-called “death of objectivity” is in many ways productive. First, it attends to failures of false equivalency as journalists have attempted to show “objectivity” through falsely presenting two sides of an argument as equally valid. Second, an embrace of subjectivity represents a reckoning with White supremacy within journalism that has highlighted how traditional views of what is “objective” have overwhelmingly been framed around White audiences. However, while an embracing of subjectivity may better orient journalism to the communities it aims to serve, this turn to subjectivity also opens up journalism to more diverse voices to the benefit of hyperpartisan pseudo-news producers.
What happens when trust and authenticity are disconnected from truth?“Allowing audiences access to journalists on social media…gives audiences insight into how journalism works, allows them to get to know the faces behind the news, and makes journalists more visibly accountable to their audiences.”
There exist several key questions to be explored within this “crisis” of trust—what does “trust in news media” mean when audience assessments of trust are becoming less about journalism and more about individual relationships with journalists and news outlets? At what point does trust in news media have nothing to do with journalism at all? Interpersonal relationships have always been central pillars underlying a generalized sense of trust in news media, take for instance how US audiences welcomed Walter Cronkite into their homes for the nightly news. As we look to democratize journalism to better serve historically marginalized populations, these interpersonal relationships serve as vital resources to change journalism for the better and to cultivate a useful trust in news media that expands its readership and strengthens participatory democracy. Allowing audiences access to journalists on social media, for example, gives audiences insight into how journalism works, allows them to get to know the faces behind the news, and makes journalists more visibly accountable to their audiences.3See, for example, Moran, “Subscribing to Transparency.”
However, these social media tools and the power of authenticity and transparency to build trust are open to all and thus are similarly being used to strengthen an increasingly far-right media ecosystem and a growing number of social media pseudo-journalists who seek to spread dis- and misinformation. Reckoning with these contradictory and parallel phenomena requires an expansion of how we think about authenticity online, and explicitly how we attend to authenticity as a multidimensional judgement. How can we harness the benefits of hyper-individualized assessments of authenticity while avoiding its potential to distract from journalistic professionalism? How can journalism benefit from the accountability and transparency authenticity often requires, without this also being used by hyperpartisan news producers as a replacement for professional journalistic practice?
Trust and authenticity exist as complicated theoretical constructs that retain the potential to both strengthen and undermine journalism’s ability to fulfill its democratic role to spread truthful information. Broadening our understanding of the effective and harmful ways in which they act as a tool within information environments is an important starting point to strengthen trust in news media in ways that improves journalism for all and allows it to be a counter to dis- and misinformation. Our collective mission, therefore, is to explore how to reconnect trust, authenticity and news media in productive ways that expands and improves journalism as a profession of truth-building.
Banner photo: Jon Tyson/Unsplash.