Industries in Depth

How can we build trustworthy media ecosystems in the age of AI and declining trust?

It’s clear that urgent action is needed to rebuild trust in the media ecosystem and tackle disinformation.

It’s clear that urgent action is needed to rebuild trust in the media ecosystem and tackle disinformation. Image: Unsplash/Roman Kraft

Minos Bantourakis
Head of Media, Entertainment and Sport Industry, World Economic Forum
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  • The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2023 reveals how the news media landscape is changing, with concerns around mis/disinformation growing.
  • Trust in news media globally is low and declining in our polarized world.
  • Urgent collective multi-stakeholder action is needed to rebuild trust in the media ecosystem, tackle disinformation and promote media information literacy.

More than 2 billion people globally will be participating in the democratic process in 2024, with elections happening in countries around the world, including the United States, the European Union and India, to name a few.

In what will be a record-breaking year for elections, concerns are rising over the unprecedented speed and scale at which generative artificial intelligence (AI) could amplify misinformation and disinformation.

"Degrees of trust will go down, the job of journalists and others trying to disseminate actual information will become harder," Ben Winters, a senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the UK paper The Guardian in July 2023.

Trust in news is low and further declining, with only 40% of the population trusting news, while concerns over disinformation grow, with more than half of the population worried about fake news. These trends, alongside the decline in the number of people taking a strong interest in the news, depict a concerning picture of the media landscape.

It’s clear that urgent action is needed to rebuild trust in the media ecosystem and tackle disinformation.

How the media landscape is changing in 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the shift to “digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environments”.

Digital media is the "new normal," says Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, in the foreword to their Digital News Report 2023. "Journalists and news media have to carve out their places if they want to connect with the public."

The study shows an overall gloomy landscape for the media industry and for those who believe the media plays a critical role in a healthy democracy. Here are some key findings:

Graphs illustrating the main ways of obtaining news online. all markets.
Social media is where people go for their news. Image: Reuters Institute
  • Audience preferences are shifting

The audience share starting its news journey on actual news websites is declining, with just over a fifth consuming news that way. Young people (Gen Z), in particular, show a "weaker connection with news brands’ websites and apps – instead coming to news via search, social media or aggregators."

Users of social networks like TikTok and Instagram pay more attention to celebrities and influencers than journalists. In contrast, news media and journalists are "still central to the conversation" on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Trust is low and further declining

Only 40% of people trust “most news most of the time”, according to Reuters Institute.

Graphs illustrating the proportion that trusts news most of the time, selected countries.
Trust in news media is falling. Image: Reuters Institute

This declining trust is confirmed by the findings of the Edelman Trust Barometer 2023, which found business was the only trusted institution and media trust stood at 50%, down a significant two percentage points in a year. The trend of declining trust in media has been documented by the Barometer in recent years across both traditional and social media.

"This year, we found that even fewer people with polarized mindsets trust the media, and distrust in the media is a driver of polarization," says Justin Blake, Executive Director of the Edelman Trust Institute.

"As polarization gets more extreme, it's clear that a lack of trust in the media is both cause and consequence. All institutional leaders – particularly those in business who are the most trusted – must learn to navigate this 'infodemic' by avoiding misinformation and providing their audiences with vetted information."

Graph illustrating the Edelman Trust Barometer. media ecosystem
Journalists are among the least trusted institutional leaders. Image: Edelman

Gen Z remains particularly discerning when it comes to who they trust – with 70% of 14 to 24-year-olds saying they always fact-check what a brand says on social media and will unfollow if it’s not being truthful, Edelman’s The Power of Gen Z report found in December 2021.

There is also waning trust in algorithms, the Reuters Institute report found, as fewer than a third of people believe either algorithmically or manually chosen stories are a good way to get news.

  • Concerns around disinformation and misinformation are growing

More than half (56%) of the survey respondents said they “worry about identifying the difference between what is real and fake on the internet” when it comes to news.

The war in Ukraine, climate change, politics and COVID-19 are the key topic areas people report seeing false or misleading information about.

A study of users on Facebook around the 2020 US election found that news publishers known for putting out misinformation got six times more engagements on the platform than trustworthy news sources, such as CNN.

In the run-up to the 2024 election, these risks stand to be further exacerbated by AI.

  • News avoidance is at record levels

Interest in the news is dropping, with just under half of respondents (48%) saying they are “very” or “extremely” interested in news, down 15 percentage points from 2017.

  • The challenging economic situation poses risks on media business models

As high inflation sparked a cost-of-living crisis, people are also having to make tough decisions about paying for news subscriptions. Across 20 wealthy countries, only 17% of respondents paid for any online news – the same figure as last year.

Global ad revenue has halved in six years for print media, and along with rising costs, have led to industry cost-cutting, journalistic layoffs and the slimming down (or closure) of print editions. The decline of traffic to news websites from social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, coupled with the advent of generative AI that could further reduce traffic by enabling search that doesn't require users to click through to access content, can all pose risks for media business models.

The PwC’s recently launched Global Entertainment and Media Outlook (2023-27) echoes similar findings, as it finds that the pace of growth of the Media & Entertainment industry has decelerated in 2022 at +5.4%, vs. 10.6% in 2021, and is expected to continue slowing down in the next five years.

How to rebuild trust in the media ecosystem

Rebuilding trust requires taking collective action across a broad range of levers:

1. Reducing exposure to harmful content online, in particular, mis/disinformation

Collective action is needed to advance safety online, tackling the abuse of user-generated comments, identifying malicious actors spreading disinformation, demonetizing fake news, and disincentivizing the creation of echo chambers for extremist perspectives. This requires the adoption of advanced technology solutions and the development of national policies. The World Economic Forum’s Global Coalition for Digital Safety is a public-private platform aimed at innovating and collaborating to tackle harmful content and conduct online.

“Our community of users increasingly search for news content on TikTok. We want users to be able to find and discover journalists and news organisations that they trust and we want that experience to be authentic and informative," says Theo Bertram, Vice President, Government Relations and Public Policy for Europe at TikTok.

"This requires a determined approach to identifying and removing misinformation and disinformation. Working collaboratively with external experts in NGOs, academia, government and industry through partnerships, such as the Coalition for Digital Safety, is absolutely key to achieving that goal.”

2. Building awareness about trustworthiness of news media

The development of gen-AI and its consequential large increase in content produced and distributed online could lead to substantially different scenarios: from a widespread distrust in all content found online across all media sources and formats to the strengthening of trust in reputable sources during times of informational chaos.

In this context, it is of key importance for news outlets to build awareness about the key principles they adopt to ensure the quality of content and information, including approach to sources and editing processes, as well as how recommendations are made to readers, and what use is made of gen-AI, among others.

"It is clear that most consumers are looking not for more news, but news that feels more relevant and helps them make sense of the complex issues facing us all," says Nic Newman, lead author of the Digital News Report.

"New technological disruption from Artificial Intelligence (AI) is just around the corner, threatening to release a further wave of personalised, but potentially unreliable content. Against this background, it will be more important than ever for journalism to stand out in terms of its accuracy, its utility, and its humanity."

3. Enhancing media information literacy to empower individuals to distinguish mis-disinformation

Enhancing literacy encompasses multiple areas of intervention and requires overcoming significant challenges. Traditional education is a key channel, but embedding it in its curricula requires effort-intensive private-public cooperation and can take a long time, while other approaches (corporate training, for example) have not always proven effective.

"It's so vital that people are able to build media literacy skills, seek out high-quality information, and protect themselves online. Media literacy education and the establishment of a rich media environment provide citizens with reliable sources of information so they can make informed decisions about their lives and the future of their respective countries," says Jeanne Bourgault, President and CEO of Internews, while emphasizing the importance of branching out.

"Unfortunately, education is ultimately meaningless if high-quality information is not widely broadcast on a rich diversity of TV, radio, and digital channels. That is why media literacy must be combined with efforts to support quality, accurate information, so healthy information environments can prosper."

Media literacy education and the establishment of a rich media environment provide citizens with reliable sources of information so they can make informed decisions about their lives and the future of their respective countries.

Jeanne Bourgault, President and CEO of Internews

Effective literacy efforts should avoid “scare” tactics, emphasize best practices, and engage audiences in ways that resonate with them, for example, by leveraging entertainment channels. It is of high importance for the early engagement of youth, and special attention needs to be given to vulnerable groups, such as senior citizens or victims of tech-facilitated gender-based violence. Exposure to quality content and journalism can be a driving force of critical thinking, which will emerge as a core skill for the future, as our Future of Jobs Report 2023 finds.

This is a new focus of the Forum's Coalition for Digital Safety.

4. Mitigating the risks and leveraging opportunities emerging from generative-AI

The exponential developments of generative AI technologies can potentially transform the media landscape. It is estimated that 90% of the content online will be synthetic by 2026, according to a study by AXIOS, leading to a further decline in the share of content produced by media outlets. Generative AI adoption can lead to the transformation of creators’ economy, and the potential disruption of search can impact publishers’ business models.

"A key lesson of generative AI is that content is now fully commodified. Journalists must stop seeing their value resident solely in their content and instead reimagine the field in a newly connected world, around serving communities and improving public discourse by finding, supporting, and sharing voices too long not heard in mass media," says Jeff Jarvis, [former] Director, Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY's Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

"To use generative AI to generate news is a mistake, first because we know it has no understanding of fact and second because flooding an already cluttered information ecosystem with yet more content is counterproductive. Instead, machine learning and large language models can be useful in helping journalists organize their reporting, in extending literacy by helping some people tell their own stories, and in creating new ways for users to enter into dialogues with news. For journalism, artificial intelligence should be augmentative rather than generative."

The technological developments also generate debates over intellectual property rights related to human-generated content consumed by AI models for training purposes and on how copyright frameworks apply to content produced by AI models.

“We advocate for a regulatory framework that supports innovation but also protects fundamental rights and rules," says Martin Weiss, CEO of Hubert Burda Media. "If AI exploits our journalism without licences and without transparency, the recent regulatory improvements in the field of copyright are being undone. This puts the future of journalism as a fundamental pillar of democracy at risk.

"An example of the importance of the role of journalism in society is constructive journalism. Balanced reporting highlights and classifies different perspectives on topics, creating trust and diversity of opinion. This enables socially relevant journalistic work that people trust and that is, therefore, able to move social issues forward," he adds.

The Forum has launched the AI Governance Alliance to drive multi-stakeholder action to champion the responsible design and release of transparent and inclusive AI systems. The initiative prioritizes three main areas: ensuring safe systems and technologies, promoting sustainable applications and transformation, and contributing to resilient governance and regulation.

"As trust in information erodes and concerns over AI's impact on media grow, urgent, multi-stakeholder action is vital. We must promote media information literacy, enhance transparency, and responsibly leverage AI," says Cathy Li, Head of AI, Data and Metaverse, World Economic Forum.

"The AI Governance Alliance, launched by the World Economic Forum, unites leaders to ensure AI aligns with human-centric principles to drive societal progress."

5. Reinforcing trustworthiness through transparency and accountability

Audience measurement is key, as well as mechanisms to ensure accountability of all actors along the media value chain. Among other aspects, it will be essential to ensure the impact of marketing investments is measured along the customer life-cycle analysis, going beyond the individual medium or one-off interaction perspective, to assess the value created by engagement and consumption of high-quality content.

"The fundamental tenets of trustworthy research – independence, representation and transparency – have not changed. What has changed is the diverse sources of data reflecting the realities of the ecosystem," says Pete Doe, Chief Research Officer at Nielsen.

"No single data set provides a universal view of human activity: machine learning and AI approaches are informed by big data sets that rely on empirical data to build confidence in the methodologies and reduce bias. Consumer panels capture people directly. Getting the most comprehensive understanding of how a market is performing requires multiple data sets and data science solutions to address gaps, duplications and inconsistencies across data sets. Understanding and assessing these component data sources and the algorithms used to synthesize them is complex. Transparency about processes and adherence to independent audited standards is important for building trust."

6. Increasing interest and engagement in news media

Increasing accessibility to and affordability of quality content is of key importance to keep people interested in news media. Democratizing access to information is important to avoid widening the media literacy divide and further disenfranchise lower-income segments of the population who have less access to digital technology.

The Digital News Report 2023 found that 32% of respondents without news media subscriptions would be encouraged to subscribe if it were cheaper and more flexible. Today’s consumers are looking for freedom of choice: they want an optimized user experience, and discoverability and targeting become paramount.

Partnerships among media outlets and other players can provide consumers with unified access to multiple news and help overcome the challenges of walled gardens, adherence to privacy regulations, and difficulties in managing big data. In Norway, for example, which has the highest levels of paid subscription, Schibsted offers an all-access package, which includes six national and local newspapers, 44 magazines and exclusive podcasts.

There is an opportunity to reimagine journalism and news in a new reality with product and format innovation that can make quality content more appealing, interactive and engaging.

With podcasts proving perennially popular, there’s potential in new media formats to meet consumers where they are: from audio and newsletters to video on platforms like TikTok.

"The change in media consumption towards podcasts and video presents the delicate need to explain a highly complex world in more conversational formats or short form," says Holger Stark, Deputy Editor-in-chief, DIE ZEIT, Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. "While satisfying that demand, we are not only attracting a younger target group. We also observe an unusually intense relationship between journalistic professionals and the public, which, very encouragingly, counters the diminishing trust in the media."

Rebuilding and maintaining trust in the media ecosystem requires collective action

It’s no easy task, but if we hope to safeguard democracies and the future of journalism, collective multi-stakeholder action is needed to rebuild trust in the media ecosystem and tackle disinformation.

The industry leaders of the Media & Entertainment community at the Forum are working on the development of an Industry Manifesto, aimed at highlighting the critical role of journalism and quality content for society and democracy, raising awareness of the principles adopted by responsible media & entertainment players, and supporting the empowerment of consumers by promoting media information literacy. Media players are welcome to join this effort.

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