Why whistleblowers’ trust in journalism is fading

Editor’s note: Longtime Nieman Lab readers know the bylines of Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis. Mark wrote the weekly This Week in Review column for us from 2010 to 2014; Seth’s written for us off and on since 2010. Together they’ve launched a monthly newsletter on recent academic research around journalism. It’s called RQ1 and we’re happy to bring each issue to you here at Nieman Lab.

There is perhaps no more studied — or worried-about — dimension of news over the past five to ten years than the decline of media trust. It’s extremely well-documented at this point, across virtually all corners of the globe. And we now have hundreds of studies examining just about every facet of this decline — its causes, its effects, and its many proposed solutions.

But there’s one less-studied group of people for whom a declining trust in the news media might be particularly damaging for journalists: whistleblowers. Journalists have depended on whistleblowers for some of their most consequential stories of the past several decades. But since whistleblowers often initiate an interaction with journalists, their act is a leap of faith that requires significant trust in both the journalist individually and the professional standards and impact of the news media more generally.

That’s the argument that undergirds a new study by the University of Georgia’s Karin Assmann, published late last month in Journalism Practice. If whistleblowing to a journalist is about the greatest act of trust one can put in the media, Assmann wondered, what were whistleblowers’ criteria for that trust, and how do they evaluate journalists’ performance in light of those criteria? And more broadly, might the decline in media trust generally make it less likely that individual whistleblowers choose to trust journalists with their secrets?

Assmann interviewed 16 American whistleblowers who contacted journalists between the 1970s and 2010s. Nearly all of them worked for U.S. government agencies, and several were quite prominent, including Daniel Ellsberg and Jeff Wigand.

Assmann analyzed these interviews through the lens of institutional logics, the set of practices, assumptions, and values that govern a particular social sphere. She noted that whistleblowers are news consumers just like anyone else — they have an outside understanding of journalism’s institutional logic, one that they must see as substantially more valuable and trustworthy their own institution’s logic in order to use the former to expose the latter.

She found that whistleblowers were drawn to journalists because of the overlap between their own motives and their perception of journalists’ motives — keeping the powerful in check and advocating for the public interest. Their goal was to produce social change, so the name recognition and status of the journalist they approached played an outsized role in their criteria for trust.

Two other criteria were unsurprisingly significant: a commitment to protect their identity and substantial subject matter expertise. What’s more surprising is that many of them — about half — now see the news media as antagonistic and much less likely to fulfill the role they had hoped for when they blew the whistle. They variously described the news media as “corrupt, biased, politicized, self-serving, beholden to the government and neglectful of their sources,” Assmann wrote.

Some of their misgivings are rooted in specific failures of the journalists they worked with — in one case, journalists named the whistleblower at a press conference without his consent. Others were based on a more generally cynical disposition toward the press.

Many of the whistleblowers said they would attempt to circumvent the news media when releasing similar information today, given the ease of self-publishing and their perception of declining specialized expertise among journalists. Yet they were wary of this strategy too, citing the sophistication of government surveillance tools (especially in cases like that of Reality Winner) and susceptibility to censorship by social media platforms.

These whistleblowers have heavily bought into the institutional logic of journalism, with its self-regard for its watchdog role and strong professional standards, Assmann concluded. But even as they continue to reach out to the news media, their trust in journalists to hold up those standards has eroded. “Their expectations are increasingly difficult to meet in the U.S. media environment, where newsrooms cannot afford dedicated beat reporters with the expertise and resources necessary to be discovered and trusted by the next whistleblower as a reliable collaborator,” she wrote.

Research roundup

Examining podcast listeners’ perceptions of the journalistic functions of podcasts. By Kelsey Whipple, Ivy Ashe, and Lourdes M. Cueva Chacón, in Electronic News.

Podcasting, as this study notes, “is both new and old, confident but still coming into its own” — a teenager of a medium, having been born around 2004.

The audience for podcasts has grown tremendously in recent years (consider: how many podcasts have you listened to just in the past week?), so it’s a thoroughly established element of digital storytelling — and yet one without clearly established boundaries, practices, or normative expectations. And when it comes to news on podcasts, should we describe it, as various observers have, as “confessional” or “personal” journalism,” as “audio nonfiction novels,” as “soundworks” — or something else entirely? Moreover, what do people want and expect of podcasts as a form of journalism?

This study explored those questions through a representative national survey of U.S. internet users, about half of whom reported being podcast listeners. The results seemed, on the surface, somewhat contradictory: There was “notably low trust in podcasts as a source of news” and yet also “strong support for the perception that podcasts are a form of journalism and information-sharing.” That is, podcast listeners indicated that they trusted it less as a source of information than radio and other traditional forms of news…and yet they also very much saw podcasting as an important vehicle for journalism.

What might explain this gap? While the study couldn’t say for certain, it seems plausible, the authors suggest, that at least part of it is that creators and listeners are still working out what ethical standards and storytelling norms should look like (er, sound like) in this emerging medium.

Perhaps it’s also a matter of exposure and of developing greater media literacy. Survey results indicate that “people who listen to podcasts more frequently trust them more as a source of information and are more likely to agree with the statement that podcasts are journalism — and that podcast hosts and creators are journalists,” the authors write. “Similarly, consistent (daily or monthly) listening to a podcast could provide listeners more insight into the podcast production process, and this could influence listeners’ perceptions of podcasts as a form of journalism.”

The researchers also looked at how podcast listening was connected with different perceptions about core journalistic functions (e.g., should the press be adversarial like a watchdog? more of an interpreter of events? etc.). They found that listening was most strongly correlated with the idea that journalists should “provide entertainment and relaxation” as one of their roles. “Podcast listeners may indeed understand podcasts to be a form of journalism,” the authors conclude, “but they may tune in to these shows to unwind and be entertained.”

“News for life: improving the quality of journalistic news reporting to prevent suicides.” By Florian Arendt, Antonia Markiewitz, and Sebastian Scherr, in Journal of Communication.

Covering suicide is complicated terrain for journalists. Debates about the relative quality of such coverage have often focused on how truly poor it can be, and why that’s so significant. After all, sensationalistic reporting on suicide — particularly when specific details are provided about the method and location of suicide, etc. — has been shown to increase the likelihood of “copycat” suicides. But it’s not all bad: News coverage that eschews such details and instead emphasizes hope and recovery can be associated with a decrease in suicides.

But how strong is the evidence for such impact on society? Can we really draw such a linear connection between better news coverage and better social outcomes, both in general and on this important issue in particular?

The study here offers a unique approach. First, the authors made an intervention, launching a web-based campaign to promote higher-quality suicide reporting and offering this training to newsrooms in Germany. Ultimately, 22 newsrooms participated in the training, which included having journalists watch videos and also help in spreading awareness to their colleagues. Then, the researchers tested the effects of the intervention on changes in news content (did reporting improve?) and on the rate of actual suicides (did the numbers go down?).

The results are rather heartening: A content analysis of more than 4,000 articles indicated that reporting on suicides improved in quality, and a subsequent time-series analysis found “tentative evidence” for an actual reduction in suicides.

“Acknowledging limitations in terms of causal interpretations,” the authors write, “the findings support the claim that high-quality news can save lives. Similar newsroom interventions run elsewhere may contribute to preventing suicides globally.”

Signaling news outlet trust in a Google Knowledge Panel: A conjoint experiment in Brazil, Germany, and the United States. By Gina M. Masullo, Claudia Wilhelm, Taeyoung Lee, João Gonçalves, Martin J. Riedl, and Natalie J. Stroud, in New Media & Society.

What to do about the crisis of trust in news that we described at the top? Among the many proposals, some have suggested that greater journalistic transparency — that is, pulling back the curtain on who journalists are, how they do their work, and so forth — might facilitate greater audience trust, as news processes and practices come more fully into public view. But does that really work? Generally, the evidence has been inconsistent, these researchers note.

This study attempts to study journalistic transparency in a slightly different way. It uses a conjoint experiment (which allows for the manipulation of many more variables than usual experimental designs, offering a finer level of assessment and causality), and does so in three countries: Brazil, Germany, and the United States, with more than 6,000 participants in total. This more sophisticated approach, the authors argue, allows them to “parse more precisely whether a particular transparency attribute signals to the public that a news outlet is trustworthy.”

Importantly, too, the researchers treated transparently a bit differently than other studies by focusing on a Knowledge Panel-like box of information that people would come across about a news organization when they search for it on Google. They found that, indeed, “journalistic transparency can cue trust when it is done at the level of the entire news outlet, or the domain level, and comes from an external source, Google, as opposed to the outlet itself.”

The study also finds that, at least in Brazil and the U.S., two pieces of information in a Knowledge Panel offer particularly strong indications that a news outlet is trustworthy: “a brief description of the news outlet and an explanation of other sites accessed by people who frequent that news outlet’s website.” In Germany, meanwhile, “information about journalists and the description of the news outlet were the strongest cues.”

In all, the study offers vital clues about the importance of Knowledge Panels in cueing heuristics that ultimately influence whether people trust news organizations.

“Just a ‘mouthpiece of biased elites?’ Populist party sympathizers and trust in Czech public service media.” By Klára Smejkal, Jakub Macek, Lukáš Slavík, and Jan Šerek, in The International Journal of Press/Politics.

There’s so much interest in studying trust in news that it’s worth highlighting just one more study in this vein — this time from the Czech Republic.

You won’t be surprised to learn that people with populist attitudes tend to have lower trust in the press. This is especially true when talking about public service media (PSM). Despite the fact that in European countries with strong democracies, such government-supported media tend to be highly professional as well as fairly autonomous from outside influence, the drumbeat of criticism about them has continued to grow in recent decades, and particularly from populist politicians and those supporting them. However, exactly why trust in PSM tends to be so lacking among populist-leaning citizens has remained less clear, this study suggests. Is it simply an ideological mismatch, or something more?

The authors address that here by exploring “how populist party sympathizers differ from the sympathizers of other, non-populist political parties in terms of what they expect from the news media they trust, and how this difference affects their trust in PSM.” In particular, the study tests two types of expectations that could predict trust: first, the expectation that trusted media are impartial, and second, the expectation that trusted media tend to look out for “us” and serve “our” in-group accordingly.

A representative survey of the adult Czech population finds that, for populist party sympathizers, trust in PSM links exclusively to their assumption that media should “conform to their worldview,” while those supporting other political parties “expect normative standards [of journalism] to be maintained.” To be clear, what the authors call “cohesive trust” and “normative trust” are both important and can co-occur for people. What’s significant is that the path to engendering trust in PSM among populist party sympathizers appears to flow only through the former and not the latter — which underscores the overall challenge of improving trust in the press, particularly in Europe but elsewhere as well.

“Government eyewitness: Considering new approaches to political coverage through local TV’s greatest strengths.” By Brian Calfano, Costas Panagopoulos, and Elisa Raffa, in Journalism & Communication Monographs.

For television as a form of news, its visual qualities as well as the personal connection that people may feel toward the journalists and personalities involved can be one of its greatest strengths. And yet, as these authors note, the same things “also expose the medium’s glaring weaknesses in support of democratic governance. To the extent that visual aesthetics, production techniques, sensationalism, and conflictual framing of political issues overshadow informative journalism, TV’s bad tendencies may make American politics worse, not better.”

So, what might be done about this? Calfano and colleagues offer a monograph — which is like a journal article, but much longer and more elaborate — that brings together insights from sociology, political science, and communication “to focus on how best to bring political coverage of value to TV audiences.”

They begin by tracing the development of the Eyewitness News model that is now universal in local television, and then, using a combination of survey and field experiments, investigate how audiences react to eyewitness reporters, particularly when modifying the use of a policy vs. partisan frame by reporters.

“Across these experiments,” they find, “audiences, and especially Republicans, respond more favorably to local than to national reporters and to the use of a policy than a partisan frame.”

A second set of experiments, among others they provide, examines “false balance and truth-telling in local TV stories about the 2020 presidential election” — and again finds that the local reporter wins out against a national counterpart when it comes to audience response, especially for Republicans.

Ultimately, the authors argue that local TV, being less encumbered by the partisan feelings associated with national networks, has more leeway to adapt and make a difference for people. In their view, “local TV news has the most latitude to demonstrate the kind of political reporting approach that offers the most audience value in keeping with the media’s characterization as the Fourth Estate. We hope that a local TV approach to political reporting (i.e., reducing the strategy and partisan conflict reporting, expanding the scope of topics that count as ‘political’), will influence a reform movement among national outlets.”

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