Social media fake news sees digital journalists less trusted than traditionalists

23 March 2018 7 min. read
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As digital journalism seeks to recover from a severe reputational knock delivered by the ‘fake news’ era, online outlets still struggle to be perceived as little more than avenues of entertainment. However, the key to changing this may be collaboration with cash-strapped traditional news media members – who remain more trusted by the public, but under-resourced with regards to investigative journalism.

According to a new report from Reuters Institute, in cooperation with the University of Oxford, online journalists face an uphill battle to be taken as credible sources. Data covering over 30 countries and five continents revealed that 23% of online news is accessed through social media, compared to 32% directly visiting sites, and 25% using search engines. Meanwhile, only 24% of respondents said they believed sites like Facebook and Twitter do enough to separate fact from fiction.

This is compared to 40% of respondents who felt the same with regards to the traditional news media. While this is hardly a vote of confidence in legacy outlets of journalism, with a majority still not trusting in traditional media institutions, it reaffirms evidence gathered last year by KPMG. People who receive news through social media are the most critical consumers of information, according to the Big Four firm’s analysis. While 46% of respondents were concerned about the accuracy of newson social media in the era of ‘fake news’, traditional media remained well-trusted, despite a plethora of scandals in recent times which have seen the integrity of print and televisual media called into question.

While the disparity is most pronounced in Canada, the only nation in the survey where a majority of respondents believed the traditional media did a good job of weeding out fake news, the UK saw lower than average trust in social media (18%) coupled with higher than average trust in the news media (41%). It is likely that there will always be something of a gap in trust between verified publishers, and the infinite resource of the Internet, where technically anyone can obtain a large audience for stories of a dubious nature. However, the substantial difference in trust between online and traditional news sources is most likely due to the rise of the fake news phenomenon.

Proportion that agree the news media/social media does a good job in helping separate fact from fiction

Fake news is often credited with the success of a new wave of hard-right populism that has taken root in global politics, with social media being particularly singled out for criticism as a completely unregulated source of information. Fake news generally refers to journalistic stories that confirm false or inaccurate information, intentionally or otherwise, although it has also been used by political operators, most famously by US President Donald Trump, who, while the term came to prominence to describe falsehoods spread by his election campaign, ironically weaponised the term for his own use to discredit the opinions of others.


Many social network providers such as Facebook are increasingly trying to find answers to these problems by working with fact-checkers to show when stories are disputed before they are shared. They are also looking to find ways of exposing users to content beyond their political bubbles through news related content experiments. However, according to Reuters researchers, it is dangerous to overstate these issues, which are seen as much less of a problem in many European countries and for younger respondents.

Proportion that agree they are exposed to sources they would not normally use – all markets

Both Governmental sources and corporate interests have proposed formal actions to censor ‘inaccurate’ information; and while the notion has a strong allure for those feeling wronged by electoral defeats in the United States and the UK – relating to the Brexit referendum – placing the political caste or unaccountable corporations in the position of arbiters of online truth is extremely problematic, not least because it might make it more difficult for Millennials and future ‘web natives’ to access potentially important content. Such individuals have often configured their own news feeds in such a way that social media can still provide them with a convenient stream of reliable news, and often exposes audiences to new perspectives – without having to see the state, or corporations interfere.

Currently, 36% of social media users surveyed believe that they encounter new sources through the platforms. This is lower than those who use search engines to find news (40%), but higher than those who rely on aggregators such as Google News (35%).   


Besides the connotations conjured up by their means of distribution, online news platforms also face challenges relating to the broader reputational problems of their industry, if they are to better win the trust of the public. Reuters found that certain brands play a disproportionate role in creating trust and distributing common facts – especially on issues such as politics and international affairs.

When examining the state broadcasting institution of the BBC in the UK, seven in every ten of its users believe it is ‘best for’ accurate and reliable news – and a further 63% use the BBC to understand issues. This makes it a key driver for trust in the traditional media as a whole. Meanwhile, just over a fifth of Guardian readers think it is ‘best for’ reliable news – thanks in part to the BBC playing that role for so many – although 45% of its readers polled said they valued it for opinion and viewpoints.

Buzzfeed News, meanwhile, was selected by Reuters as one of the most prominent Internet-centric news platforms, and according to the analysis, the platform drives trust in new media in a different direction. Just 2% of Buzzfeed News readers believe that the platform is ‘reliable’ as a source of news, 7% use the platform to understand issues, and a similarly sparse 8% engage with the platform for its commentary and opinions. Instead, a hefty 55% of its readers described it as ‘best for’ amusement and entertainment.  

Attributes for selected news brands – uk

Similarly, this is something which the Mail Online, a digital arm of a traditional media institution, has pushed for further. 49% of Mail Online readers polled believed it was a valid resource for entertainment, while only 16% believed it was useful for accurate and reliable news.

According to Nick Newman, one of the authors of the report, and a Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, traditional media brands are facing new competition from a number of digital-born media brands – something which might account for the Mail Online’s emphasis on entertainment over information. Unfortunately, this only plays into the perception that online news platforms are less about informing readers, and more about amusing them.

One way around this may be for online journalists to collaborate with traditional news outlets to help boost their credibility. Newman cited BuzzFeed News  as a key example of this, as it’s “strong political coverage aimed at millennials” saw its investigative team break “a major story around match fixing in tennis, in a historic partnership with the BBC.”

According to Newman, such collaboration could become more common place, partially because it suits traditional news media sources too. He said, “UK news publishers are pursuing a combination of radical costsaving and increased collaboration in the face of steep declines in print advertising revenues. Overall, print ad spending fell by 13% in 2016, according to Enders Analysis, with Facebook and Google being the main beneficiaries of the move to online.” In such a state of play, online outlets willing to put resources toward investigative journalism could become a key cost-cutting measure, one which would benefit their credibility, and the bank balances of major news outlets struggling to make ends meet.