In search of lost trust

By Misch PautschLex Kleren Switch to German for original article

Listen to this article

Fewer and fewer people trust the press. Any medium that wants to reach its readership and takes its role as the fourth estate seriously must win back this trust. That requires introspection, empathy, optimism - and a return to the roots of good journalism. A solution-oriented article about solution-oriented journalism.

This article is provided to you free of charge. If you want to support our team and promote quality journalism, subscribe now.

"Don't believe everything you hear." It's one of the first warnings concerned parents give their children. Luxembourgers seemed to have taken the advice to heart, especially when reading, watching or listening to the news. The Polindex study, published by the Chair of Parliamentary Studies, paints a sobering picture: on a scale of 1–10, 41 percent of respondents ticked the 1–5 option, and 30 percent between 5 and 6. Only 20 percent rated their trust in the media at 7–10, an average of 4.8 out of 10, putting the media at the bottom of the list along with religious and philosophical institutions (4.3) and social media (3.3).

Of the problem …

While the methodology of the study was sharply criticized by sociologist Fernand Fehlen, among others, in a Forum article, a look beyond the borders of the Grand Duchy reveals comparable, if slightly better, trust scores. According to the Digital News Report of the Reuters Institute, 30 percent of people in France trust "most of the media most of the time" this year (up from 38 percent in 2015), while in Germany the figure is still 43 percent (down from 60 percent). With 69 percent, the media in Finland enjoy the most trust. The general trend is clear: fewer and fewer people trust the media. Why?

"I believe the way back to trust lies in hope."

Nina Schnider, editor of relevant.

Dr. Stéphanie Lukasik is currently addressing this very question. As an expert in information and communication at the University of Luxembourg, she is pursuing the goal of an ongoing study to get beyond the simple statement that "people don't trust the media". In a video interview, she gives us some initial insights: "Distrust of the media can be found in every generation. The main reason they gave was that newspapers are often ideological. I noticed that there was often confusion between information articles and opinion articles. Especially people who have little contact with information have a tendency to mix the two. They feel that journalists are defending certain opinions – and that's a problem."

The fact that – contrary to this feeling – the editorial separation between opinion and objective article is generally respected in Lukasik's eyes is of limited relevance – as long as it is not perceived that way by the population.

Stéphanie Lukasik

A second problem, Lukasik says, is a disconnect between the topics covered and the reality of readers' lives: "Many don't feel that the information picked up in the press really affects them in their everyday lives. And the issues that really affect them are not taken up." Quite a number of the people interviewed say that they lack classic local journalism. There is little room for local problems in the press world. Specific to Luxembourg is that people with a migration background often not only wish to be informed in their native language, but also want news from and about their native country. At the same time, many of them are completely excluded from the news sphere by language barriers: political interviews on television and radio are almost exclusively in Luxembourgish.

This, she concludes, are reasons why people then tend to get information on social media, especially in groups in their community, or village. From there, it's then just a short hop into the world of news on Facebook, Tiktok and co., with their invisible filter bubbles that ultimately display only exactly what you want to see. Here, Lukasik says, people "zap" from source to source, rarely following a single medium. Often, this also happens through news aggregators, such as Google News, which brew an international news cocktail based on preferences. People don't trust these, but at least here they find exactly the short and snappy news that suits their taste. At the same time, people have a tendency to seek out other media that match their ideas and confirm them. Confirmation bias, as it is called, thus ensures that people do not build their opinions based on available information, but instead seek out only the information that confirms preconceived opinions. These developments are not without consequences. "Don't believe everything you hear" is increasingly becoming "Don't believe everything you hear unless you like it."

"With solution-oriented reporting, readers feel obligated to do something because we're all in the same boat. The journalist doesn't just explain the shit to us, but also classifies the shit for us."

Nina Schnider, editor of relevant.

According to Lukasik, this lack of trust not only manifests itself in verbal attacks on journalists (ironically, mostly during street interviews with passers-by, who should in themselves establish a certain closeness).

In the long term, growing doubt about a common, factual information base can lead to problems for society as a whole, adds Romain Schroeder, coordinator for further education and education service of the Center for Political Education (ZpB). He notes this loss of trust in political, scientific and non-profit institutions and organizations as well. "We can definitely see that the culture of discussion is suffering. We need, as people and as a society, a set of certainties to function. When that basic trust erodes, everything that is built on it is also lost, namely a common search for viable and, as far as possible, equitable solutions to societal problems. When you no longer do that, because you no longer absorb factual information, it becomes difficult to make decisions that can command a majority and to implement them."

… about the consequences …

This is also reflected in a general loss of trust in political institutions, he warns. Here, healthy skepticism should not be confused with a systematic loss of trust. "That doesn't mean that you shouldn't look very closely at the people in the system: What are they doing? How are they doing it? Are they delivering on their promises? Are they respecting the separation of powers? It becomes problematic when the distrust is not for good reasons, but 'because you can't trust them anyway.'"

Romain Schroeder

A growing part of the population, however, is no longer willing to seek understanding at all: "We see increasing social polarization, i.e. the tendency not to even try to listen to the other 'camp' and follow their information chains. Either consciously or because these are no longer even perceived in the digital or real bubble." Media that report on the perceived "other side" are then perceived as untrustworthy across the board. The result: fringe groups that no longer talk to each other, but at best get upset about caricatures of the "others" conveyed to them by "their" media.

"A lot of people don't really feel affected by the information that's picked up in the press in their day-to-day lives."

Stéphanie Lukasik, Communication and Media Scientist

At the same time, fake news is a growing problem, notes Schroeder: "Fake news and deep fakes (videos in which real people, including their voices, are digitally simulated to look deceptively real, editor's note) are making it increasingly difficult even for people who know these phenomena well to distinguish between what is real and what is fake. At some point, you can come to the conclusion that you can't really believe anything anymore. Every medium then suffers from this, no matter how good a job they do." The well-intentioned "Don't believe everything you hear" increasingly turns into a nihilistic "Don't believe anything … unless you like it."

… to attempted solutions …

It's a potent brew: perceived mixing of fact and opinion, reality-averse issues, competition with easily digestible, free-access social media, confirmation bias, polarization, fake news and deep fakes… what to do?

"We're human, we need perspective, after all. Hope is something primordially human. And I believe in hope lies the media's path back to trust. If we combine reporting with constructive, positive feelings and don't just report on one terrible thing after the next, we'll find rays of hope again." Nina Schnider is an editor at relevant., an Austrian Solutions Journalism Network. Solutions journalism, born out of constructive journalism, is a reaction to precisely this hopelessness and negativity that has led to distrust in the media world. The antidote: Don't leave readers out in the cold. Where in most media the work ends – after the what, who, where, when, how, why – in solution-oriented journalism the work only begins, with the big question: "What now?" What are concrete solutions, with evidence of their impact? What attempts have been made, even if they failed? And what lessons can we learn from them? "And last but not least, and this is very relevant for us: What options for action do I have as a reader? We want to present solutions, classify them, and show what can work."

© Rosa Merk

Nina Schnider

Underlying this, Schnider says, is the observation that classic media reports are often not realistic, even though they insist on being objective. "If all we do all the time is report on crises and war and horror scenarios without providing and classifying further information, the media themselves can become a problem." Because it's precisely the glimmers of hope that many tune out, "They often don't show the whole picture, that is, the great people and organizations that are really having a massive positive impact. And that's where the trust is. I don't think what we're doing is anything new at all, but a return to a journalistic attitude that's always been there: namely, not leaving the reader feeling overwhelmed and helpless." In fact, Solutions stories are perceived by readers as more objective.The point is not to paint the world rosy, or to make "fluffy news, " as Nina Schnider calls it, but to be journalistically honest: What is the problem, what are answers, how do they work, how can they be proven, and what are their limitations?

Thus, solution-oriented journalism, slightly self-referential, can be part of the solution to the crisis of confidence in which it finds itself. Statistically, readers* prefer articles that address solutions and show ways forward. At the same time, Schnider says, the audience is involved: "With solution-oriented reporting, readers feel obligated to do something, because we're all in the same boat. That's because the journalist isn't just explaining shit to us, but also classifies the shit for us." She is particularly pleased that two readers signed up with a volunteer organization after reading one of her articles.

At the same time, they invite readers to actually read longer articles in their entirety – dwell time is higher for solution-oriented articles – and thereby understand the topic more deeply.

This deeper engagement with the topic allows it to be broken down further and be more relevant to the realities of readers' lives, Schnider says. "It's not just society that has retreated into its information bubbles, but journalism itself, I think. To a large extent, we've lost touch with our readership and we need to find it again. As I said, it's not about reinventing anything at all, but finding the right attitude: What are the needs of readers, and how can we rediscover that partnership?" In this way, Solutions Journalism invites short paths between the press and the reader.

It is probably no coincidence that Finland, with the highest level of trust in the press, is also the country where most (63 per cent) obtain their news directly, i.e. via the website of the medium itself, and few resort to social networks (13) or aggregators (17). In Denmark, the birthplace of Constructive Journalism, 59 per cent of readers also click on the website of the medium itself. Here, too, trust is well above average at 57 per cent.

… with their limitations

All of this comes at a cost. Solutions journalism requires that many perspectives be considered and weighed against each other. Simple solutions are a dime a dozen, and usually there is a person or group behind them who wants to profit from it. This requires critical examination of the topic, which cannot be found in press releases and 2-minute interviews. At the same time, this search for diverse perspectives makes it almost impossible to work on a daily basis. So Solutions Journalism takes time that many media outlets don't have. At the same time, the approach is antithetical to clickbait journalism, which is probably the most efficient way to turn the (digital) newspaper printing press into a money printing machine. While the audience's willingness to pay for publications with solutions journalism is higher than for problem stories, solutions-oriented stories remain arguably not the fastest way to get rich quick in the media world.

"We need, as people and as a society, a set of certainties to function."

Romain Schroeder, ZpB

At the same time, paywalls, which are necessary to finance the lengthy research process, create a hurdle for potential readers – especially since the free alternative is always available. While government press subsidies can cushion this, the cost of accessing quality information nevertheless remains a financial hurdle that can exclude the socially disadvantaged in particular. But even the financially well-off think twice, in the face of rising living costs, before making the decision to subscribe.

At the same time, reaching people who are disengaged from the media world remains a lengthy process that the media alone can hardly manage. Media education, say all interviewees, is a key step in bringing the general public and journalists back together. School projects, such as the "Concours jeune Journaliste, " can play an important role in building the basic understanding needed to later participate in social dialogue, says Schroeder. "Even in the family, among friends and acquaintances, you can counter polarization by listening, and sharing thoughts. That doesn't mean that after the conversation, the other person will immediately say, 'Okay, you've convinced me.' But conversations also have an impact." "I think the media is a central pillar of our democracy, " Lukasik also says." It would be important to suggest this in education and show how the media world works. What is opinion, what is information, how can I verify it?"

The responsibility to bring responsible media and the readership back on an equal footing must be addressed from several sides at once. The press world itself will have to play a central role in this and win back the trust that has been squandered. In doing so, solution-oriented journalism can not only shed light on many forgotten, reality-based issues, but at the same time play an important role in bringing journalism itself back into people's lives – thus regaining their trust, article by article. Not so that people believe everything they hear. But so that they listen to what has earned their trust.