News

Building Trust in a Digital World

At a keynote speech to the Westminster Media Forum today, IMPRESS CEO Jonathan Heawood described how independent regulation can help sustain journalism in the twenty-first century.

In the speech, Jonathan Heawood said: ‘Only 22% of the British public say they tend to trust the press, the lowest rating in Europe. Why does this matter? Firstly, and most importantly, it matters because journalism exists to speak truth to power. Not to speak lies to power, rumours to power or half-baked conspiracy theories. But truth. And if British audiences simply don’t believe that journalists are telling them the truth, then journalism can’t do its job.’

‘Trust in journalism is linked to commercial sustainability – more so than ever in a digital economy, where publishers can’t rely on brand loyalty. In the digital space, publishers have to fight for attention.’

‘Publishers are joining IMPRESS because they see the reputational and commercial benefits that independent regulation can bring. They see that independent regulation drives accountability. That accountability drives trust. And that trust drives sustainability. They know that independent regulation alone can’t solve the digital news problem. But they agree with us that it is part of the solution.’

Read the full speech below:

Priorities for a sustainable, independent and responsible news sector

Westminster Media Forum
13 September 2016

Thank you to the Westminster Media Forum for inviting me to speak today.

I want to talk about trust. In particular, how IMPRESS – the first truly independent press regulator in the UK – can help journalists and publishers who are looking to build trust as part of their strategy for developing a sustainable business model.

I should explain why I care about this so much.

Before launching IMPRESS, I worked for many years as a journalist and press freedom campaigner. For more than six years, I was Director of English PEN, which defends freedom of expression for authors all over the world. I campaigned against the chilling effect of libel laws and worked with reporters from countries where the press is censored, where journalists are in prison for doing their jobs, and where reporters and editors run the risk of violence and even death.

So I believe strongly in a free and vigorous press.

I also believe that, in order to survive in a hyper-competitive market, the press must be trusted by the public.

And in this country, trust is in very short supply.

According to Ipsos MORI, only 25% of the public trust journalists to tell the truth. You might think that’s okay, because estate agents and politicians are even less trusted. But bankers and lawyers are more trusted than journalists. Even pollsters are more trusted. And journalists can only dream of the trust enjoyed by doctors, teachers and judges, who all score 80% or above.

According to this year’s Reuters Digital News Report, trust is lower than average among the young, which suggests that the crisis may be growing worse. The press, in effect, is sitting on a trust time bomb.

The trust problem exists in other European countries, but not to the same extent that it does in the UK.

Research by the European Broadcasting Union shows that, across the EU, 43% of people tend to trust the press; but 50% of people tend not to trust it. So the press has an average net trust rating of minus seven.

Trust in the press is above average in countries such as Finland and the Netherlands; and well below average in countries such as Macedonia, Greece and Serbia – countries which are facing huge political and economic challenges.

But the country with the lowest trust rating of all? The United Kingdom, where net trust in the press is at a staggering minus 51.

Only 22% of the British public say they tend to trust the press, the lowest rating in Europe. 73%, nearly three quarters of the public,  say they tend not to trust the press, the worst trust rating by a long way –  beyond Greece on 65%, and Serbia on 63%.

Why does this matter?

Firstly, and most importantly, it matters because journalism exists to speak truth to power. Not to speak lies to power. Not to speak rumours to power, or half-baked conspiracy theories to power. But truth.

And if British audiences simply don’t believe that journalists are telling them the truth, then journalism can’t do its job. This is a real problem for a sector whose constitutional role is to hold power to account.

This is not just a high-minded problem for those of us who care about civic engagement or democracy.

Because trust in journalism is also linked to commercial sustainability – more so than ever in a digital economy, where publishers can’t rely on brand loyalty. In the digital space, publishers have to fight for attention.

The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that when people trust a company, they are more likely to buy its products. But as this year’s Reuters Report shows, the UK is the country in which audiences are least willing to pay for online news.

Edelman’s Chief Exec Ed Williams joined the dots on all this when he said: ‘surely it is not a coincidence that the country which is rock bottom in terms of trust in the press … is also least likely … to pay for … online news’.

If audiences don’t see why they should trust professional journalism, then why should they be expected to pay for it?

In other industries, people would take such a crisis of trust very seriously. In fact, people in other industries do take trust seriously – and they reap the benefits for doing so.

Look at broadcasting, for example.

In 2008, Ofcom fined ITV nearly £6m for cashing in on premium rate phone lines and unfair competitions, where viewers were charged even after lines had closed. The scandal led to an inevitable fall in trust for the broadcaster. But Ofcom’s intervention resulted in a complete overhaul of such competitions across all broadcasters. Whilst ITV took a short-term hit, both reputationally and financially, it quickly regained the trust of its audiences – and later on this was reflected in a stronger commercial performance.

Remember the Ipsos MORI survey? It showed that only a quarter of us trust journalists to tell the truth. But it also showed that two-thirds of us trust TV news readers to tell the truth.

What’s the difference between journalists and TV news readers?

Well, one difference is that news readers are regulated by Ofcom. And just as Ofcom’s regulation of phone competitions has, in the long term, helped ITV to rebuild trust, so its regulation of TV news has also helped broadcast journalists to retain far greater trust than their counterparts in the press.

Some investigative documentary makers like Ofcom so much that they describe the regulator as a ‘critical friend’. And no, they’re not suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. And yes, they do find Ofcom irritating and irksome at times. They are human beings. But the bottom line is that they believe regulation helps them produce better journalism.

One filmmaker told me how Ofcom helps her to dig out bigger and better stories, because it forces her to go through proper fact-checking processes.

And because they produce better journalism, broadcast journalists command more public trust.

It’s quite simple really. We place our trust in people and organisations who do a decent job. It’s not that we expect journalists to be angels, any more than we expect bankers and lawyers, or even teachers and doctors to be angels.

We don’t really think that TV news readers are more virtuous than journalists for the press. But we trust them more, because, as an institution, we trust broadcasters more than we trust the press. We believe that they are more likely to provide us with a decent service.

As the Reuters research has indicated, this crisis of trust isn’t the fault of individual journalists, the vast majority of whom work incredibly hard for very little reward. It’s the fault of an industry which has been too happy, for too long, to sacrifice trust in the pursuit of other short-term priorities.

So how can we turn this around?

Well, part of the answer comes from a surprising place: Silicon Valley, where the Trust Project is conducting research into what makes people trust some news sources more than others.

This research, at Santa Clara University, is supported by Google, presumably because Google’s success depends on the speed and reliability of its search results. If those results include unreliable sources of news and information, then Google’s own credibility is damaged.

And in a digital economy, with a thousand sources covering the same breaking story within minutes, Google needs to know which to bring to the top of its results, and which to leave to the bottom.

The research makes for fascinating reading.

When the team at Santa Clara University asked people what makes them trust a particular news provider, they said they were looking for sites that were, among other things:

  • Objective and unbiased and which disclose any conflicts of interest.
  • Independent of business or government pressure.
  • Consistent and reliable.

Now, given time, you might be able to work out whether a particular news site is objective, independent or reliable. But Google doesn’t have time. Its algorithm has to come to a decision about each site within nanoseconds.

So the Trust Project is looking for indicators of trust – elements which can be quantified and which can help the algorithm to identify more trustworthy news sources.

Proposed indicators include such things as:

  • Information about a company’s ownership and finances.
  • A mission statement.
  • Editorial guidelines.
  • An ethics policy.
  • A corrections policy.
  • And an ombudsperson.

In other words, when the public are deciding whether to trust a particular news provider, they’re looking for evidence of accountability. They want to see clear information about where that provider is coming from; what its editorial standards are; and a policy for dealing with things when it doesn’t meet those standards.

And on top of that, they’re looking for some kind of independent oversight – something like an ombudsperson.

Why?

Because the public don’t take your word for it when you tell them that you’re trustworthy. They want you to prove it. As far as trust is concerned, the more accountability, the better.

These findings echo our own research at IMPRESS.

In a survey run by Britain Thinks, we asked more than 2,000 people to tell us whether they preferred the press to be self-regulated by the industry or regulated by the government or an independent body.

Self-regulation was the least popular approach, with only 17% in favour. In fact, more people would rather see the press regulated by government. And a significant majority – 58% - would prefer independent regulation.

Once again: the public don’t take your word for it when you tell them that you’re trustworthy. They want you to prove it. And as far as regulation is concerned, the more independent, the better.

That’s why, at IMPRESS, we’re helping publishers to give the public what they want.

We offer a simple and straightforward complaints-handling system. We help publishers put together editorial policies for their sites and print editions. We ask them to be transparent about any conflicts of interest and to follow clear ethical guidelines.

In return, we allow them to display our Trust Mark.

More than 40 publications, with a combined readership of more than two million people, have already signed up to IMPRESS, with more joining all the time. We are funded for at least the next four years by a charity, the Independent Press Regulation Trust, which supports our aims but has no influence over the membership of our Board or our standards code or our adjudications or investigations – or in fact over any aspect of our operations or governance.

This start-up funding means that IMPRESS is independent and sustainable. As more publishers join, our income stream will become more diverse. But our constitution, and our oversight by the Press Recognition Panel, ensures that we will never be beholden to any funders or publishers.

These publishers are joining IMPRESS because they see the reputational and commercial benefits that independent regulation can bring. They see that our values match theirs, and that we can help them to survive and thrive in a competitive market.

They see that independent regulation drives accountability. That accountability drives trust. And that trust drives sustainability.

They know that independent regulation alone can’t solve the digital news problem. But they agree with us that it is part of the solution.

We’re delighted that the National Union of Journalists and Sir Harold Evans also support IMPRESS and our model of independent regulation. Like us, they believe that independent regulation can only strengthen a free and vibrant press.

So the question really isn’t whether independent regulation can help to sustain journalism in the twenty-first century – it’s how. And whether publishers can afford not to invest in the same degree of accountability that they – quite rightly – expect of all other sectors.

Thank you very much.

Jonathan Heawood

CEO, IMPRESS