This research was conducted by the Media Insight Project — an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research


For more than a generation, research has tried to identify the qualities that lead people to trust news. The work has concluded that in general people want journalism to be fair, balanced, accurate, and complete. It can be unclear, however, what these broad factors mean or how news organizations can achieve them.

Even more challenging, these traditional conceptions of trust were formulated before the advent of the Internet and did not account for all the ways that consumers today encounter news and publishers can deliver it.

A new comprehensive study, conducted by The Media Insight Project, shows that trust and reliability in news can be broken down into specific factors that publishers can put into action and consumers can recognize. The study also finds that in the digital age, several new factors largely unexamined before — such as the intrusiveness of ads, navigability, load times, and having the latest details — also are critical in determining whether consumers consider a publisher competent and worthy of trust.

The specific factors that lead people to trust and rely on a news source also vary by topic, the study finds. How much consumers value a specific component related to trust depends, for instance, on whether they are seeking news about politics or traffic and weather, let alone lifestyle. On some topics, consumers rate in‑depth reporting and expert sources more highly. In others, ease of use is of higher value. For still others, being entertained is more important.

And in social media, consumers are fairly skeptical of content and want cues of trustworthiness such as clear identification of the original reporting source.

Finally, the study sheds new light on why trust should matter to today’s publishers: It’s not only a journalistic aspiration, but a business imperative. People who put a higher premium on trust‑related factors are more engaged with news, are more likely to pay for it, install news apps, or share and promote news with their friends.

[chart slug=”trust-0-1″]

Over the last two decades, research shows the public has grown increasingly skeptical of the news industry. Designed for today’s saturated media environment, this new study from The Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press‑NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, helps establish that trust is an important differentiator for building an audience.

“If there is no trust, there is no relationship,” said Brandon, a lifestyle news consumer, during a focus group in the Philadelphia area. “Why put energy into something I can’t trust when there are other resources that I can trust?”

The new study employs multiple research methods to drill down into the notion of trust and identifies specific factors that publishers can put into action. With this approach, the study reaffirms that consumers do value broad concepts of trust like fairness, balance, accuracy, and completeness. At least two‑thirds of Americans cite each of these four general principles as very important to them. But the study goes further, breaking down what consumers actually mean when they talk about accuracy or fairness, and adding new specific factors about how people prefer the news to be presented.

Among the study’s findings:

  • Accuracy is the paramount principle of trust. Eighty‑five percent of Americans rate it as extremely or very important that news organizations get the facts right, higher than any other general principle. And when we dig down into more specifics, a particular factor related to accuracy —getting the facts right — is most valued regardless of the topic.
  • The second‑most valued factor related to trust, however, has more to do with timeliness. Three‑quarters of adults (76 percent) say it is critical to them that a news report be up to date with the latest news and information. This is something all media can compete on in the digital age on fairly equal footing.
  • And the third‑most cited factor in why Americans rely on a news source is related to clarity. Fully 72 percent say it is extremely or very important to them that a news report be concise and gets to the point.
  • Online, still other factors come into play. Here people cite three specific factors as most important: That ads not interfere with the news (63 percent); that the site or app loads fast (63 percent); and that the content works well on mobile phones (60 percent). In contrast, only 1 in 3 say it is very important that digital sources allow people to comment on news.
  • One of the new discoveries in this study is that the reasons people trust and rely on a news source vary by topic. For example, people are significantly more likely to say that expert sources and data are an important reason they turn to a source for news about domestic issues than about lifestyle news (76 percent vs. 48 percent). People are far more likely to want their source to be concise and get to the point for national politics (80 percent) than sports (61 percent). Similarly, people care more that their sources for sports and lifestyle present the news in a way that is entertaining (54 percent and 53 percent) than say the same about political news (30 percent).
  • Even how people rank specific elements of digital presentation varies by topic. Close followers of traffic and weather, for instance, care more that such content presents well on their mobile phones (72 percent say that is very important) than do consumers of national political news (55 percent).
  • People who rely on social media heavily for news are highly skeptical of the news they encounter in those networks. Just 12 percent of those who get news on Facebook, for instance, say they trust it a lot or a great deal. At the high end, just 23 percent say they have a lot or a great deal of trust in news they encounter on LinkedIn.
  • To overcome that general skepticism, social media news consumers say they look for cues to help them know what to trust there. The most important of those, cited by 66 percent of Facebook news consumers, is trust in the original news organization that produced the content. The reputation of the person who shared the material is a less frequently cited factor for Facebook news consumers (48 percent).
  • About 4 in 10 Americans (38 percent) can recall a specific recent incident that caused them to lose trust in a news source. The two most common problems were either instances of perceived bias or inaccuracies.
“For a source I trust, I will talk about an article or something I heard and forward the link to a friend or family member, or I will tell them to tune in to listen. For YouTube, I will subscribe to their page and encourage others to view their content,” said Timothy, an older, hard news respondent, during the virtual activities.

The study also finds a strong correlation between trust and how much people interact with news. People who place a higher importance on a variety of specific factors related to trust are more likely to pay for their favorite news sources (28 percent vs. 20 percent), to share content (55 percent vs. 32 percent), and follow favorite news sources on social media (40 percent vs. 26 percent).

There are some generational differences here, too. Younger and older adults share similar beliefs generally about what trust in news means to them. But younger Americans are more likely to place greater weight on factors related to a source’s digital presentation and performance.

Race and ethnicity also matter when it comes to why people trust or rely on different news sources. African American and Hispanic news consumers are more likely than white news consumers to say it is very important that they see their communities and people like them in the reporting.

And there are also some broad differences in levels of trust by political affiliation. Democrats are more likely to have confidence in the press in general than Republicans or independents. However, there are not systematic partisan differences in beliefs about what specifically constitutes a trustworthy source or why people rely on certain sources.

About the study

The nationally representative survey was conducted from February 18 through March 6, 2016, and funded by API. Staff from API, NORC at the University of Chicago, and AP collaborated on all aspects of the study.

Data were collected using the AmeriSpeak Panel, which is NORC’s probability‑based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. household population. Panel members were randomly drawn from the AmeriSpeak Panel, and 2,014 completed the survey. Respondents without internet access and those who prefer to complete surveys by phone were interviewed by trained NORC interviewers.

The overall margin of sampling error is +/‑ 2.9 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level, including the design effect. The margin of sampling error may be higher for subgroups.

The qualitative research was conducted from February 24 through March 2, 2016. Insight Strategy Group LLC conducted the research in collaboration with staff at API, NORC at the University of Chicago, and AP. The qualitative research featured a combination of ethnographic activities and focus groups. First, 36 news consumers participated in a series of online activities designed to examine their news behaviors and attitudes. Then, 18 of these news consumers participated in news forum discussions on March 2, 2016, in the Philadelphia area. Each news forum lasted about two hours and included six participants with similar news behaviors.

Share with your network

You also might be interested in: