Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

Why trust matters

A fundamental question any research about trust in news must address is whether trust actually matters to audiences and, if so, how.

The data here suggest that the specific factors of trust do correlate not only to whether people turn to a particular source but also how much they engage with news in general. People who rate specific factors related to trust as especially important are the most likely to engage with, and to pay for, news from the source they rely on. They are especially more likely to share content from their trusted sources.

And again, this relationship varies by topic. People who put a high value on trust‑related factors in choosing their main source of news for political or domestic issues are even more likely to engage with the source in several ways.

Americans who place the greatest emphasis on trust factors are most likely to pay, share or follow that source

While most people report all of the trust‑related factors are important, some people place a higher value on them than others. And those news consumers especially concerned with trustworthiness are also the most likely to report that they take valuable actions — such as paying for news, spreading news to friends, and following the source on social platforms.

In short, news organizations that earn trust have an advantage in earning money and growing their audience.

To assess the relationship between trust and engagement, we compare the people who are most likely to report that specific factors related to trust are very important reasons they rely on a source versus people who say they are less important. We examine respondents’ importance ratings for all 12 trust‑related factors and break people into three groups — from those who rate these factors most highly to those who rate them as least important in whether they use a news source.1

When we do this analysis the relationship between trust and engagement is clear. People who place the highest importance on trust‑related factors are more likely to report that they engage in a variety of activities with news content than those who place the least importance on these factors. Those who rate trust‑related factors highest are much more likely to share the sources’ news content with others (55 percent vs. 32 percent). They are also more likely to follow their favorite news sources on social media (40 percent vs. 26 percent).

Those who put the highest premium on trust‑related factors are also more likely to use the sources’ mobile or web app (35 percent vs. 24 percent).

Those who put a premium on trust factors are also more likely to pay for the source of news they use (28 percent vs. 20 percent). And they are nearly twice as likely to subscribe to the news organization’s newsletter, text, or email alerts (23 percent vs. 12 percent).

Trust is of higher importance Trust is of average importance Trust is of less importance
Regularly share its content with others 55% 48% 32%
Follow it on social media 40% 35% 26%
Use its app 35% 28% 24%
Pay for it 28% 24% 20%
Subscribe to its newsletter, text, or email alerts 23% 17% 12%

Data Source: Question: In which of the following ways do you interact with [NAMED SOURCE], do you…?

Media Insight Project

The focus group discussions about the relationship between trust and engagement provided additional context.

The focus group participants described trust as more than just accuracy or balance. It also includes an emotional connection. People talked about a trusted source consistently meeting their needs, and that they go to trusted sources more frequently and usually first because it saves them time and energy.

People also said they will take steps to proactively engage with a trusted source, such as following it on social media or paying more for it. In particular, several said they would pay only for apps from a trusted source.

“For the sources I trust more, I typically subscribe to their apps, website, and social media sites,” said Sonya, an older, hard news consumer. “They are my go‑to sources. I know the names of anchors and casts. I know the segment shifts.”

At the same time, we heard in the focus groups that a loss of trust can lead people to turn to other news outlets. “If you lose my trust, I just move away and I’m not coming back,” said Drew, a younger, hard news respondent. “There are plenty of other sites to look at and you’re all competing for our eyes.”

The relationship between trust and engagement differs by news topic

As with trust in general, the relationship between trust and engagement varies based on the topic of the news. This is especially the case when it comes to paying for a source and following it on social media.

Among those who follow foreign or international issues, for instance, the people who put a premium on trust‑related factors are four times as likely to pay for news as those who rate these factors as less important to them (69 percent vs. 14 percent). However, there are not significant differences between these groups when it comes to paying for news on other topics.

People who put a premium on trust‑related factors are far more likely than those who do not to follow a news organization on social media to get its coverage of national politics (40 percent vs. 21 percent) and domestic issues (39 percent vs. 25 percent). But there are no substantial differences between whether people in these different trust groups are likely to follow a favorite news organization for other topics.

Likewise, people who place a higher value on trust‑related factors are more likely than those who do not to subscribe to newsletter, text, or email alerts for news about politics (23 percent vs. 11 percent) and domestic issues (25 percent vs. 14 percent) from their favorite sources. But putting a higher premium on trust factors does not correlate to engaging in these ways for most other news topics.

There is one form of engagement where a higher value on trust matters virtually no matter what the topic. People who put a higher premium on factors related to trust are more likely to share news content from a favorite source on social media, across topics. The only exceptions to that are sports and foreign or international news.

Convenience and entertainment factors also improve engagement

In addition to factors traditionally associated with trust — such as getting the facts right or having the latest details — engagement is also correlated to convenience and entertainment.

For example, those who highly value that a news source presents news and information in a way that it can be easily discussed with other people are about twice as likely as those who place less importance on this to share content from a favorite news source (51 percent vs. 27 percent).

People who say that it is important that news is presented in a way that is entertaining are more likely than those who place a lower importance on this quality to follow that news organization on social media.

And history and habit matter, too. Americans who say it’s important to them that a news organization is one they have relied on for a long time are more likely to subscribe to its newsletter, text, or email alerts than those who do not consider that quality all that important.

  1. We examine respondents’ importance ratings across all 12 actionable trust components and take the one‑fourth of respondents who rate these items highest and compare them to the one‑fourth of respondents who rate their importance lowest. Respondents falling into the middle are grouped together as providing average importance ratings.

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