Who needs trust?

The case against trust is not as weak as you might think. With terms such as transparency, truth, and trust being appropriated by all sides at all times, these words have lost much of their original meaning – if we can agree on what they meant in the first place. So how can journalists change the conversation, and in turn, reconnect with their audiences?

On a rainy afternoon at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Vivian Schiller, a long-time executive at the intersection of technology and journalism, put the question to Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis at the LSE, Shane Greenup, founder of rbutr, and Richard Sandbrook, director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University. According to Sandbrook, the problem with trust is often semantic. We mix up different types of journalism: trust and truth. It’s fine for us to have different types of news – partisan, activist, emotional, impartial – but ‘when those things get crossed up and confused,’ he says, ‘then we get into trouble, then we get into misinformation.’ Similarly, just because someone trusts something, as a consistent experience, it doesn’t mean that they trust it’s impartiality. And while there’s absolute truth, there’s also personal truth, relative truth, political truth, truth in hyperbole, and artistic truth.

‘Trust is a really stupid word’, says Charlie Beckett, ‘because we use it in such a simple way. For example,’ he says to the audience, ‘how many people in this room are on Facebook?’. All hands raise. ‘How many of you trust it?’ No hands raise. Not only is it hard to define, but we as consumers are fickle with who and what trust. We might trust Facebook as a messaging app, or an events organiser, but we don’t not trust Mark Zuckerberg with our data. So how far does trust really influence, for example, whether or not we #DeleteFacebook?

Trust is a process, Beckett continues. It’s about our values and identity. ‘We all pretend that we consume journalism because we want to know facts, we want to be informed,’ he says. ‘Well, that’s kind of bullshit, really. Most of us will not be able to particularly use the information we get from journalism.’ A lot of the time we do it to send a signal: ‘I am the kind of person who takes an interest in the Syrian conflict’. And if trust can be borne out of deference to an organisation or person, familiarity – with a certain brand, for example – or just our own confirmation bias, then we should be wary of it, he says. ‘The greatest trust’, says Beckett, ‘is trust of the unfamiliar’. The best journalists tell you things you don’t necessarily want to hear, things ‘you wouldn’t want to trust or believe’ until they convince you of the opposite.

And what about the famous filter bubble effect? The very thing so-called “objective news outlets” is relentlessly seeking to burst. Well, Beckett doesn’t believe in it, and if it does exist, he’s not even convinced it’s that bad. ‘If the public is stupid they always have been,’ he says, ‘if journalists are untrustworthy then, in a sense, they always have been’.

But there’s no denying the media is in a bad state. So, in the era of viral misinformation and Russian troll factories, what do journalists do?

For one, we can be wary of the red herrings of media literacy and transparency. Educating people with media literacy can only ever be a long-term solution, according to Sandbrook, and to make things trickier the curriculum has to always evolve. Five years ago, for example, we would have never thought that to be news savvy we’d have to know about algorithms. ‘Saying media literacy will sort things out’, says Beckett, ‘is a bit like saying “if we only changed the public we’d get better election results”’.

As for transparency, he says, it’s a term that’s so overused it’s basically jargon. ‘You always know that a panel debate like this has run out of steam when someone says “well the solution is more transparency’”,  he says. And few people actually care about it. Sandbrook gives the example of the BBC and CBS live-streaming their editorial conferences ten or so years ago. That ‘radical transparency’ experiment completely flopped, he says.

Organisations, instead, would do better to realise that what drives trust is an ‘emotional connection’, therefore they should be clear about their values. As a veteran of the BBC, he also argues that what he sees as the high-standard of news broadcasting in the UK owes a lot to British regulation that tries to enforce media impartiality.

Charlie Beckett believes journalists need to listen more. To come up with better ways of talking to people, and transparency tools that relate the work directly to the audience. ‘In many ways,’ he says, ‘the much-derided tabloid press has been the best at doing this’. They portray stories in a way that feels relevant to their readers’ lives, whereas too often others present stories as something that should be read just because it’s true. The ‘trust us, we know’ mindset.

‘News is becoming intimate’ he says. It’s on our phones, along with pictures of our family, personal messages, all the other emotional stuff, ‘and – bang! – there’s Syria’. So journalism needs to personalise the news experience in a way that promotes a ‘trust relationship’ that relates people’s real lives.

Readers should constantly be presented with rebuttals, says Shane Greenup. It makes us better thinkers. ‘The point is having the corrections available so it hits the right person at the right time,’ he says, ‘that it changes that person’s mind’. Counter-arguments, over the course of time, can nudge people towards more reliable sources, and – if it even exists anymore – the truth.

But what happens when we put truth in front of people and they don’t accept it?

That’s not a new problem, says Richard Sandbrook. ‘We may all think from our well educated and engaged and passionate perspectives that the public ought to eat their vegetables,’ he says, ‘…but we can’t force people to eat what they don’t choose to eat.’ Aside from constantly publishing high-quality, well-reported stories, there is not much more journalists can do. The power of good journalism does have limits.

Take the US election victory of Donald Trump for example. For all the squawking about InfoWars and Cambridge Analytica – which in themselves are undeniably serious – ‘the real reason for the success of Trump is about politics, and economics, and society’,  says Beckett. ‘Media effects are marginal at best… and thank God in a way’. No one wants journalists running the country.

’All we can do about it is try to put the best information we can out there in the most convenient way possible’, says Sandbrook. ‘There isn’t anything else to be done’.