Reviewed by Beatrice Dernbach
Trust has become a buzzword in public communication in recent years. While people do trust science in times of crisis, as evidenced by the Science Barometer by Wissenschaft im Dialog, politicians and journalists do not enjoy much of it (as shown annually by the Trust Barometer of the Edelman company). Scientists at the University of Mainz are among those researchers who measure the latter metric, with rather reassuring findings for the industry overall. In empirical research, trust in (!) journalism is often and still equated with media trust, which is not the same thing.
Bernadette Uth and Nina Steindl present an essential contribution to making this distinction, in addition to offering a perspective on research on trust in (!) journalism that is not (!) recipient-oriented. Both are dissertations, and both authors take a glimpse behind the curtain of journalism by addressing and analyzing the editorial strategies of trust-building (Uth) as well as the determinants and implications of trust by (!) journalists (Steindl). While Uth, who hails from Münster, bases her systemic notion of journalism strongly on her doctoral advisor Bernd Blöbaum, using a qualitative, explorative-descriptive study to answer her research questions and address her hypotheses, Thomas Hanitzsch’s doctoral student conducted a secondary evaluation of survey data collected in the Worlds of Journalism Study, supported by a content analysis.
They both approach the issue via an exegesis of academic contributions on trust, with Steindl’s being more interdisciplinary. This not only provides a good overview, but also an excellent introduction to each of the two (empirical) projects.
Bernadette Uth explored how editorial offices perceive the relationship of trust with their audience and what strategies or measures they develop and implement to cultivate it. She spoke with 29 people (including two ombudspersons and one editor in a dual role) from 27 editorial offices all over Germany. She developed her theoretical toolkit mainly based on discussions about quality and quality management (esp. Stephan Ruß-Mohl and Klaus Arnold) and the criterion of transparency (Klaus Meier and others).
Her results are unsurprising, coherent, and comprehensible. She identified three main types of trust-building by editorial offices (cf. Uth 2021: 305): quality-oriented, audience-oriented, and transparent. The terms are self-explanatory and relate to the quality assurance, audience engagement, and transparency measures taken by the respondents. From the interviews, Uth also identified measures for teaching media skills, error management, and evaluation as important tools.
The editors she spoke to defined four key individual hallmarks of professionalism that are important for building trust with the outside world: skill, integrity, orientation towards the common good, and independence. Her dissertation includes many direct quotes on this aspect as well as throughout chapter 8, which presents her findings. This is makes for an arduous and sometimes overbearing read, but it is also very revealing. Bernadette Uth shows very compellingly how she came to her conclusion, namely, that there is a great deal of unity or a large consensus among the respondents, also when compared to audience surveys, but that different nuances are evident, as well. The researcher developed an analytical grid (cf. Uth 2021: 342) to be used as a self-check in the newsroom to visualize the value, status quo, and potential of its trust-building measures – and possibly also offering guidance for formulating a mission statement.
Nina Elvira Steindl’s study is quite different. Her central question is: What might explain German journalists’ trust in politics, and how does it manifest itself in their newspaper coverage (cf. Steindl 2021: 25)? To this end, she first linked dimensions of trust with political science approaches. The result is a differentiated grid of political trust, expressed in three variations according to three elements of trust: in representative institutions, in regulatory institutions, and in politicians (cf. Steindl 2021: 44, fig. 2). The theoretical construct is compelling, but its complexity requires a very focused reading of chapters 2 through 4.
Let me just highlight one key assumption: The level of trust that journalists hold in political actors impacts their (political) reporting and thus the public perception of politics. The theoretical model is operationalized in two sub-studies: From a sample of 773 German journalists, surveyed in the Worlds of Journalism Study, Steindl selected 106 newspaper editors and cross-referenced their survey results with their political newspaper articles in a linkage analysis. She developed a battery of hypotheses and categories, or variables, at the culturalistic (social trust, generation, education), institutionalistic (such as satisfaction with political performance, the economic situation, etc.), and individual levels (role in the newspaper’s politics department, professional experience, and identification with the role of neutral mediator) (cf. Steindl 2021: 175). Some trust indicators in the content analysis – differentiated by political and object representation – were objectivity, negativism, emotionalization and personality, concrete tone, conflict, confrontation, character traits, etc. (cf. 191).
Skipping over chapters 6 and 7, which present the findings of the sub-studies, I will just point out two quotes that summarize the conclusion in section 8 (cf. Steindl 2021: 302-320). »Thus, the findings [from sub-study 1; BD] demonstrate that, on the one hand, it is well worth taking a nuanced look at trust in politics. On the other hand, they confirm a trend towards lower trust in representative institutions than in regulatory institutions, with politicians being the least trusted group of institutions« (Steindl 2021: 249). Sub-study 2 concludes that »overall, the findings indicate that the journalists’ trust has an impact that cannot be entirely neglected, and that the facets of reporting identified as trust indicators should be studied more closely in the future. At the same time, however, we should note that the influence of trust on reporting is sometimes relatively minor, so we should interpret them with caution. This may, of course, be due to the fact that reporting can be subject to a myriad of influences.« (Steindl 2021: 287-288). In short: Journalists are somewhat more critical of political elites than the average population, which actually makes them well suited for their role as commenting observers of political actors and processes, shaping their »normative stance as neutral mediators, as anchored in German journalism culture« (Steindl 2021: 319).
From a pragmatic and a practical stance, a journalist might now ask of both works: So much effort for such narrow insights? Indeed, both works invested a great amount of effort, yielding only slim empirical, robust findings. But the value of both studies lies primarily in how they address and operationalize the social-psychological and complex phenomenon of trust in the system of journalism. Bernadette Uth’s and Nina Steindl’s research designs both succeeded in reducing this complexity.
Unfortunately, neither resource-rich companies, nor media organizations, nor political actors have any interest in a broad, in-depth study of the phenomenon of trust in journalism. Especially in times when the media and journalism are described as »system-relevant«, journalism should, as a matter of course, discuss itself and its social function both before and in interaction with a critical and competent public. This goes hand in hand with media literacy, a skillset that has been demanded of recipients for decades. Media literacy is the keyword that makes both publications come full circle. Journalists can contribute greatly to educating people in media skills, also in conjunction with their editorial offices. But unfortunately, there is no money in it.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 8 June 2022, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/23209
About the reviewer
Dr. Beatrice Dernbach is Professor of Practical Journalism in the program Technical Journalism / Technical PR at TH Nuremberg. Her focus areas include specialized journalism, sustainability, and ecology in journalism, narration and trust in journalism, and science communication.
Translation: Kerstin Trimble
About these books
Bernadette Uth (2021): Hochwertig, transparent, publikumsnah. Eine qualitative Analyse redaktioneller Strategien der Vertrauensbildung im Journalismus. [High-quality, transparent, audience-focused. A Qualitative Analysis of Editorial Strategies for Building Trust in Journalism.] Baden-Baden: Nomos, 407 Seiten, 84,- Euro.
Nina Elvira Steindl (2021): Geleitet von Vertrauen? Determinanten und Konsequenzen des Vertrauens von JournalistInnen in Deutschland. [Guided by Trust? Determinants and Consequences of Journalists’ Trust in Germany.] Cologne: Herbert von Halem, 360 Seiten, 36,- Euro.