This study was designed to move beyond traditional conceptions of trust in the news. These general measures of trust have been identified in long‑standing academic research, but leave publishers with little practical guidance on how to make their products more trustworthy or reliable.
In order to refine the industry’s understanding of trust and develop actionable characteristics of a source, this study explores trust through its link to source reliance. Prior research shows that the way people define trustworthy news generally yields vague definitions that cannot be put into practice. However, people can readily identify the specific factors that lead them to rely or not rely on a particular news source. Some of these factors relate to trust (e.g. getting the facts right) and others likely do not (e.g. its content is entertaining).
In this study, we measure the reasons people rely on sources in order to provide insights into the importance they place on specific factors that might be related to trust. We then link these specific factors to more general principles of trust such as accuracy or completeness.
The chart below shows the traditional principles of trust on the left and their corresponding actionable factors on the right.
The research then dug deeper on these specific factors related to trust. To do so, we asked people what topics they follow most closely in the news. We then asked them to think about the sources they rely on for following those topics and then to name their favorite one. Finally, we asked them how important different qualities are when relying on that source for that topic.
This source‑specific approach allows us to get beyond general ideas, such as accuracy, and to isolate what a concept like accuracy means for people.
Inside the broader concept of completeness, for instance, we are able to test how important it is for people that the reporting is in‑depth, that it contains all the day’s news, or that it is always up to date with the latest results.
Inside the general and sometimes elusive principle of balance we are able to test how important it is for people to see differing points of view, views they agree with, or to see their community reflected in the coverage.
This approach also allows us to test the importance of certain modern presentation factors, such as navigability and use of visuals.
Overall, accuracy and completeness are the most-cited categories of trust
Past research had found that four or five main principles made up credibility or trust in the news: accuracy, balance, and fairness central among them. Some scholars broke fairness into additional parts, such as completeness and transparency. Others suggested concepts related to clarity or presentation.
In part so this new research can be compared to that older work, we test whether people recognize these traditional concepts today. At the most general level, we find Americans do still value these traditional and general concepts of news trustworthiness.
Americans rate accuracy as the most important general principle related to trust. Eighty‑five percent describe getting the facts right as an extremely or very important factor of a trustworthy source.
That is followed by completeness (providing all the important news and information), which 77 percent describe as very important.
A sizable majority (68 percent) also say transparency (the idea that news organizations explain the way they gather and report the news) is very important.
And 66 percent rate balance (reporting that provides different views) as a key factor of trustworthy sources.
Fewer Americans, but still nearly half, cite presentation (having a high quality and professional appearance) as a very important factor for trustworthiness.
But as we will see in a moment, those numbers change when people are asked to drill down into specific factors related to trust and other factors that lead them to rely on certain sources for different news topics.
Getting inside the broad categories of trust
The next step involves drilling deeper into the reasons why people rely on specific news sources.
We broke the five general trust principles — accuracy, balance, completeness, transparency, and presentation — into 12 actionable and specific factors related to trust. In doing so, we found that many of these 12 are important for why people rely on certain sources of news. Some are significantly more important than others.
We also look at four additional factors that relate to entertainment and convenience, which may be more important in an age of greater consumer choice.
The idea that a news organization should get the facts right is cited more than any other specific factor as vital. Fully 80 percent rate it extremely or very important.
Being up to date with the latest news and information — something related to completeness — emerges as the second biggest reason people rely on a specific source, at 76 percent.
Despite presentation falling lower on the list of more general principles people think make a news source trustworthy, a specific factor related to presentation — that a news account be concise and get to the point — ranks third overall (with 72 percent of respondents citing it as very important) when we asked people why they rely on a particular news source.
“As soon as I start getting outdated news (even if by a few hours) or find out they aren’t giving me the whole story, that’s when I start to go somewhere else for news,” said Zach, a younger, hard news consumer.
Another element of accuracy — that a news account cites expert sources and data — ties for fourth among the 12 specific factors related to trust we explore. Fully 70 percent describe this as very important. Seventy percent also cite navigability — that is, easy to find the news and information you are looking for — as critical.
In other words, having something be navigable, clear, and easy to use is a key part of whether people rely on and value it.
Nearly as important to people as clarity and navigability is depth. Fully 67 percent cite that the reporting is in‑depth as extremely or very important. On its face, people wanting news to be in‑depth might reflect a contradictory preference to their desire for news that is concise. It may also reflect, however, a desire for news that is in‑depth, but no longer than absolutely necessary.
The three specific factors Americans are least likely to report as being very important are that a source makes the news entertaining (38 percent), that they see their community or people like them in the reporting (36 percent), and that it shares their point of view (32 percent).
Breaking news is different — transparency becomes more important
The qualitative research conducted as part of the study (a combination of ethnography and focus groups) also indicated something else: The importance of certain components of trust may vary depending on whether a story is breaking news or is coverage of an ongoing trend or issue.
In focus groups, people said they understand that not all the facts may be known during a breaking news event such as a natural disaster, mass shooting, or terrorist act. When there are conflicting accounts about what is happening, people even said they understand if some of the information presented may not be true.
In those instances, some people raised the idea that transparency from a source about what is “factual and verified” versus what is the reporter’s theory or speculation is more important than immediate accuracy.
People also said that during breaking news they are more likely to look at multiple sources to try to find the latest information.
“When a story breaks, I’m flipping back and forth between channels because I need to know if anything developed that I didn’t hear about,” said David, a younger, hard news consumer. “And I’m on my phone, I’m on social at the same time.”
People’s news behavior and expectations change as news stories progress and become less ambiguous. Getting the facts right returns as the most important component in their determinations of trust. “After the fact, I have higher standards because people have time to do due diligence,” said Drew, a younger, hard news consumer.
In other words, among the issues that determine what makes a news account trustworthy is timing — or where an unfolding story stands and how much time there has been for reporting.