What’s the fuss around trust? Research highlighting that something as complex as trust can’t be measured by a single question.

Newsworks commissioned d.fferento/ogy to conduct a combination of qualitative and quantitative research to investigate the concept of trust and how it applies to news media.

So a key question: is trust really so simplistic that it can be whittled down to a single number? Definitely not. It’s an incredibly complex concept. It’s multi-dimensional. It needs a context and it needs exploring among the people who actually have a relationship with their chosen brand(s), rather than lumping all media together. Nobody should expect a Guardian reader to trust the Mail, or vice versa, given that the question ‘Do you trust newspapers?’ falls at the first hurdle.

Beginning by placing trust in an academic context, we turned to Onora O’Neill, emeritus professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a member of the House of Lords. O’Neill established two key elements intrinsic in trust. Firstly that trust itself needs a context i.e. we trust different people for different things. Secondly, trust is personal and depends on relationships. Just because you trust your bank, that doesn’t mean you trust all banks. For news media, this means trusting a certain brand for more for certain types of news.

Building on this foundation, we found that trust in newsbrands is complex; it’s based on personal relationships, it’s multi-dimensional and it needs context.

Among drivers of trust in news, two are key; ‘honesty’ and ‘accuracy’. ‘Honesty’ is about whether the news source is truthful as far as it knows, respectful of the story and who it’s about and keeping moral and ethical integrity. In our research, the was reported as the most honest of all brands covered for its lifestyle news, with The Times performing very well on breaking news.

‘Accuracy’ is related to being reliable, transparent and giving a factual recount of the event as much as possible. Other important factors in trust are ‘reliability’, ‘competence’ and ‘empathy’. From Newsworks’ quantitative analysis (among readers/users of any given brand), on national news the three brands that performed the least well are the three social media brands included in the research – Facebook, Twitter and BuzzFeed.

Other important factors are:

  • Reliability – consistently adhering to the same standards of professional journalism that you would expect
  • Competence – the ability to perform something to a certain standard
  • Empathy – all subjects and stories are treated with respect and integrity, and are sensitive towards the people involved in the story

We asked readers to rate different types of news that their chosen newsbrand provides against these different qualities, which correlate with trust (honesty, accuracy, competence, reliability and empathy).

Newsbrand readers are aware of and want opinions, analyses and a points of view, as long as they’re transparent in nature. Objectivity is seen as unobtainable.

Impartiality isn’t high up on the list of reasons why readers choose their brand(s). It’s not a statistical driver of trust, but seen as the ‘icing on the cake’.

Key findings

Basic trust question:

  • Do you trust newspapers? = 44% agree
  • Do you trust the newspaper you read? = 69% agree, rising to 76% among readers of ‘qualities’
  • When trust is broken down into facets and asked across types of news, scores are highest
’quality’ average
  Breaking newsNational newsSports newsLifestyle news
With empathy82%82%81%77% 
’mid/pop’ average
 Breaking newsNational newsSports newsLifestyle news
With empathy72%71%74%69%
  • 6 in 10 agree that since the rise of fake news, they find themselves relying more on established national newspaper brands, rising to 65% of under 35s and 75% of Londoners

It’s time that we as an industry re-evaluate how we think about trust. Although trust matters, a healthy scepticism is useful for both news users and commentators on the health and wellbeing of the news industry.

If we know that trust is a multi-dimensional entity driven by numerous factors, this detail should be reflected in how we research and measure it. Distilling it down to a yes/no generic question regardless of a respondent’s media habits or their context for trusting does our understanding of this subject a disservice.