“Digital Reliance”: Public Confidence in Media in a Digital Era

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (International Engagement on Cyber VII, Volume 18, No. 3), available for purchase from Georgetown University Press. For a PDF of this article, click here.

With the last presidential election, we have entered an era of “fake news.” Popular trust in the media is at an incredibly low level, raising the questions: What went wrong, and what should be done about it? This article delves into those questions, proposing that journalists need to rethink their role and their biases.

Trust is a ubiquitous psychological attitude because humans are born into a world dependent on others, and the evidence that someone is truly to be trusted in never absolute. Mutual dependency creates expectations, promises, contracts, and the need to trust—and to sanction those who betray our trust. Despite its risky nature, some form of reliance on others is generally conceded to be a social virtue, allowing people to cooperate.

Trust in journalists is a form of trust in communication—the expectation of accurate and truthful reportage and analysis of events and issues. For citizens, reliance on news media is important in a media-linked world where what we know about the world is provided by others through media. For many news media, trust is important because they need to maintain a trustful relationship between themselves and their supporting audiences. Trust is not just an ethical ideal; it is a necessity of doing business.

Yet, despite this reliance on media, trust in journalism—especially the journalism of mainstream, professional newsrooms—is in trouble. For decades, pollsters have reported a declining public confidence in their news media, and journalism today is about the least-trusted profession (or institution) in the United States and in other Western countries. The decline has sparked a range of explanations and “solutions” to reverse the trend, from better accountability mechanisms for media to a greater emphasis on “ethics” in newsrooms.

The central thesis of this article is that addressing the issue of media trust will require a broad recasting of the problem, accompanied by a new conception of the role of journalism in information-rich democracies. The digital revolution in information media and journalism requires a rethinking of the concept of trust in news media. Ultimately, we should replace the passive, hierarchical, and ideal concept of “trust in news media” with the active, realistic, and more democratic concept of “reliance on news media.” Journalism must earn the public’s reliance every day. The judgment that media sources are worthy of our reliance, or belief, is tentative, fallible, and dependent on media performance extended over time.

The digital revolution in information media and journalism requires a rethinking of the concept of trust in news media.

Yet, a replacement of terms—substitute “media reliance” for “media trust”—is not enough since the terms have taken on new meanings. “Media” or “news media” now extends beyond the professional, mainstream newsrooms of a pre-digital era to citizen-based online journalism, social media networks, and news websites operated by political groups, human rights advocates, and innumerable other participants in a growing universe of media, now global. As we will see, the participants in this universe use, share, and evaluate media sources differently from citizens in the pre-digital era.

Therefore, we need to understand how “reliance judgments” are formed in a digital, media ecology. To mark its distinct nature, I use the term “digital reliance” to refer to citizens’ judgments about what news and news sources are “worthy” of being believed and perhaps acted on. Digital reliance is a complex evaluative judgment that occurs within the context of global communications, a web of information generators that exchange much more than news, as traditionally identified—infotainment, entertainment, sports, social media banter, extreme political ranting, pornography, and Facebook postings. Judgments of digital reliance arise in the context of these multifarious interactions. In this article, “digital reliance” is a normative term. It points to the ways that rational people ought to judge media sources and stories as worthy of their confidence, if cautious and tentative.

I argue for three interconnected imperatives: replace the idea of media trust with media reliance; define media reliance in terms of digital reliance; and reconceive the role of journalists as impartial, democratic advocates. In this view, journalists are worthy of our confidence if they act as democratically engaged journalists.1

Section 1: Trust, Reliance, and Regularity

The recognition of trust as ubiquitous does not entail consensus in theory on the nature, causes, and rational justification for trust. This diversity of views is seen in the history of philosophy and ethics and is evident in the growth, since the 1980s, of studies on trust in psychology, economics, and the social sciences generally. Philosophers tend to worry about the definition and justification of trust. Hardwig, for example, argues that trust must be “at least partially blind.”2 Hollis has argued that trust appears incompatible with “Enlightenment reason”—the independent rational agent pursuing self-interest.3 In the social sciences, researchers design “trust games” that probe when and to what extent people trust others.4

The result is that the term “trust” is used, in a confusing manner, to cover a wide variety of phenomenon, from trust in a close friend and “reciprocity” with strangers to a “trust” in inanimate objects, such as your car, or social entities, such as your bank. Given this pluralism, some writers have doubted the value of seeking a general definition of trust.5

Our understanding of media trust is improved if we distinguish trust from two other attitudes: (a) relying on others, and (b) relying on regularity. I propose that researchers shrink the scope of “trust” to a subset of human conduct—rich and personal human relationships, such as our trust in spouses, friends, or groups. Trust is expressed by explicit, important, and long-term commitments.6 Trust is about persons-in-relations, where our heightened expectation of fidelity is indicated by our reaction when commitments fail. We call violations of trust a “betrayal” causing a “personal loss.”7 Trust is not the mundane expectation of reliability from the many people I deal with every day. Reliance is typically impersonal, involving strangers and restricted to specific functions. I rely on but do not trust my plumber, my airline pilot, and my taxi driver. Similarly, trust is not acting on causal regularities among objects in my environment. I rely on my car to get me home safely in a winter storm. As a thief in Hyde Park, I rely on people to be distracted by the busker, providing a chance to pick their pockets. I act on a psychological, causal regularity: people being entertained are less vigilant about personal property.

Reliance on people to act intentionally—for example, to fulfill their promises—is the best concept for normative discussions of media performance. But why is it important to distinguish trust from reliance? First, as noted, the notion of trust is used too widely, lumping different phenomenon under the same term, “trust.” The result is that our measurements of trust and public opinion polls on trust may fail to measure the key aspects of media trust or reliance. Pollster’s questions, for example, may work from a notion of trust that is inappropriate for the domain in question. For example, measurements of public confidence in news media may suggest that our relations with news media are (or should be) similar to the personal sense of trust defined previously. But, as a matter of fact, our relations with news media are normally not rich and personal relations of trust. Our relationship with the institution of journalism is no more personal and rich than our functional relationship with our banker or government. When we purchase a house from another party, we protect ourselves with impersonal contracts, means of verification, and transparency enforced by law. Therefore, we need to measure reliance not trust; and in journalism ethics, we need to analyze the factors that constitute reasonable, critical reliance, not something vaguely called trust.

Second, the idea of reliance as keeping promises is consistent with the notion of journalism ethics as based on an implicit social contract: society grants news media extensive freedom of expression in return for responsible, democratically valuable journalism. The public expects journalists to fulfill their social duties.8 The public need not trust the news media to regard the latter as fulfilling critical democratic function to a tolerable degree.

Third, critical reliance is an attitude appropriate to the ideal of a democracy of active, skeptical citizens. In the past, individuals or publics were asked if they trusted “the media” (i.e., mainstream news media). It seemed to ask whether we trust a media institution the way we trust a good friend. Pollsters asked whether we trusted the often-aloof professional newsrooms, knowing little about their internal workings. No wonder that many people said no, they did not trust such newsrooms. Moreover, such a question runs afoul of a democratic imperative. In a citizen-directed democracy, we should never trust any social practice or institution. Trust is not the appropriate moral and political attitude. The appropriate attitude is evidence-based, skeptical reliance on certain media sources and stories.

In a citizen-directed democracy, we should never trust any social practice or institution. Trust is not the appropriate moral and political attitude. The appropriate attitude is evidence-based, skeptical reliance on certain media sources and stories.

What makes a story (or media source) worthy of reliance? Ethically considered, a reliable story is truthful, accurate, and in context, constructed by an editorially independent person (or newsroom). The media source has honest and non-manipulative intentions, is sufficiently impartial to not distort the facts, and is competent in journalistic skills to produce an informed interpretation of events or policies. Sources and stories frequently fall short of this ideal, and our evaluative judgments are imperfect, comparative, and one of degree—we judge the story to be tolerably accurate and apparently complete, and more trustworthy than another source or story.

Section 2: Digital Reliance

Assume that media trust should be translated into media reliance, in which citizens question media sources for their facts, level of knowledge, intentions, and skills. What shape does this evaluation take in today’s media ecology? The short answer is reliance is now digital reliance.9

This reliance is not some casual, easy-to-reach judgment about the truth of what one reads or sees on digital (or cyber) media. The universe of media that surrounds us is redolent with “fake news,” “alternate facts,” and ideologically motivated communicators, often anonymous or working through social media. “Fake news,” for example, has taken on at least three meanings: traditional, ideological, and propagandist: (a) the traditional notion of publishing a false or inaccurate story, deliberately or not; (b) the deliberate publishing of false or biased reports for ideological purposes, because persuading “for a cause” trumps truth and objectivity; and (c) the global use of false media messages to take political action—for example, to recruit individuals to a terrorist cause or to defend a country’s questionable actions through “mind warfare.” Today, (b) and (c) are the main senses of “fake news” eclipsing the literal, traditional sense of a reporter simply getting a story wrong, without deliberate design.

Such developments in media may be seen solely as a negative phenomenon. We citizens are besieged not only by a glut of digital-based information and opinion but by innumerable self-interested partisan groups and self-proclaimed “experts” so that who and what to reply on has, perhaps, never been more challenging.

However, more positively, the digital revolution has also given citizens new means for assessing their media sources and messages. Consider the difference in evaluating news media in the pre-digital and digital eras.10 Pre-digital reliance meant that citizens trusted—or had no option but to trust—a news media whose form of communication was one-directional, monopolistic, top-down, nonparticipatory, and nontransparent. What the public learned about the world was mediated by a professional class of journalists working for media corporations with business and political interests. Mainstream jour-nalism, as it came to be called, enjoyed a virtual monopoly on news and advertising. Information flowed in one direction: from the newsroom to an (informationally) passive and dependent public, awaiting “scheduled” news in the morning paper or on the evening news broadcast. Citizens did not participate in the news process. Newsrooms were “black boxes” that were editorially non-transparent to the public. As Herman Wasserman and I have argued, journalism ethics in this period was “closed”: a set of norms intended for and created by professional journalists only.11 Why trust these journalists? Because, editors maintained, their journalists were professionals who objectively reported facts. Citizens could read the stories for accuracy and they could listen to editors speak of their codes of ethics, but beyond that, there was little technology or transparent processes that allowed them to evaluate their media.

The digital revolution turned this passive media trust into active, digital evaluations of reliability and plausibility. Key features of digital evaluation are the following:

Evaluation is multidirectional, participatory, and comparative. Citizens use digital technology to participate in the journalism process and to search the world for other information and other media stories and perspectives. They compare one story with others. Citizens can link to large databases and original (and verifying) documents and video.12

Evaluation is social. Stories are subjected to evaluation by heterogeneous and geographically dispersed networks or online “crowds,” not just the verification of the professional reporter who wrote the story and her editor. Social verification, online, values sharing to the extent that it is comfortable with the idea of verification after the story is posted. Rumors, facts, and perspectives are “crowdsourced” for accuracy and completeness.

Evaluation assesses interpretations, not just isolated facts. Digital evaluation is as much about the plausibility of interpretations as it is about the existence of hard facts. Facts—and factual reports—are encountered while using interpretive and social forms of media (e.g., news stories in Facebook). Therefore, the evaluation of media is often about the plausibility of the interpretation and the motivations of the interpreter.

Evaluation requires transparency. If journalists write interpretations from some perspective, then the attribute of being reliant can be extended to a communicator only if the latter is highly transparent about (a) their views and biases and (b) the way they go about making editorial decisions. Transparency has become a “god” of online media ethics, filling the void left by declining news objectivity.13

To put it philosophically, digital judgments of media work, implicitly or explicitly, ascribe to the epistemological principles of fallibilism, interpretism, and the coherence theory of truth. Fallibilism is the philosophical view that none of our beliefs are immune from change or falsification.14 Fallibilism means that any news report may turn out to be flawed. Our judgments of reliance should be cautious and revisable. Interpretism means that all understandings, statements, and journalism stories are interpretations. To evaluate stories, we need multiple criteria of evaluation, not just correspondence with fact. This suggests what philosophers have called a coherence theory of truth, where reliance on a claim is based on whether the claim coheres with facts, logic, other claims, and existing knowledge.15

The digital revolution turned this passive media trust into active, digital evaluations of reliability and plausibility.

In summary, how do these developments define digital reliance? Digital reliance is a temporary confidence in certain media messages and sources generated by interactions among participants in a social web of information. In ways we do not clearly understand, shifting media confidences emerge from the holistic activity of monitoring, discussing, and contributing to journalistic discourse on intersecting media channels. These developments have implications not only for citizens and journalists but nations and how they communicate with their publics. The old one-directional model of sending press releases to the professional media is all but dead. And many organizations struggle to know how to communicate effectively in this chaotic world of social media and fake news.16 Here, “effectively” includes, in my terms, communicating in ways that lead people to bestow credibility on one’s digital communications (i.e., to be willing to digitally rely on your media work) over the work of others.

Democratically Engaged Journalism

The digital revolution and the declining public confidence in media signal the need for a redefinition of journalism’s social role. Why journalism today, in this global world?

The first step to regaining public confidence is to stop defending journalism by appealing to the outdated ethic of professional news objectivity as “just the facts.” This conception is not only philosophically flawed, but many citizens, having imbibed the online values of sharing and interpreting, reject “objectivity of fact” as an ideal for democratic journalism.17 Journalists must find another way to state their case. I recommend that it be replaced by an ethic of democratically engaged journalism, which acknowledges that, increasingly, journalism is an interpretive art, embedded within a social media of global proportions.

Digital reliance is a temporary confidence in certain media messages and sources generated by interactions among participants in a social web of information.

In this view, journalists are not neutral stenographers of fact. They are advocates of a special kind. They are not partisans or ideologues, wedded to specific causes and dogmatically advancing views that ignore counter-evidence and counter-perspectives. Journalists are, or should be, advocates for egalitarian, plural democracy. Among their duties is to advance democratic dialogue across racial, ethnic, and economic divisions and to explain and defend pluralistic liberal democracy against its critics.

Journalists are partial about their aims—the broad aims of democracy and informed publics. But they should be impartial in method. They should practice a “pragmatic objectivity” that subjects claims and alleged facts to evidence-based critique and public scrutiny. Critique is according to a holistic set of standards.18 If all journalism stories are interpretations, then we need a notion of objectivity that disciplines and tests our interpretive tendencies, rather than tries to eliminate them. We need appropriate standards of evaluation. Pragmatic objectivity provides a list of types of standard:

1. Standards of attitude. Journalists should adopt the objective stance, step back from their beliefs, display a passion for truth, not allow partialities to distort inquiry, and give reasons that others could accept.

2. Standards of empirical validity. What is the empirical evidence for the story? Are the facts carefully collected, verified, complete, and placed in context? Are counter-facts treated seriously?

3. Standards of clarity, logic, and coherence. Does the story cohere with existing knowledge in the field? Is the interpretation logically consistent? Are the concepts clear? Are fallacious arguments or manipulative techniques used?

4. Standards of diverse and trusted sources. Are important sources taken into account and fairly assessed?

5. Standards of self-consciousness. In constructing a story, are we conscious of the conceptual frame we use to understand the topic? Are there other frames?

6. Standards of open, public scrutiny. Have we subjected our views to the views of others? Are we prepared to alter our views?

The standards apply to many forms of journalism from reporting to editorial writing.

The adoption of an ethic of democratically engaged journalism will not only help the practice respond to current political challenges—for example, in reporting on President Trump—but also provide a platform from which to argue for the digital reliance of citizens. Journalists can acknowledge that their interpretations do come from somewhere—their own situated perspectives as journalistic inquirers. Yet their interpretations are not purely subjective opinion. The interpretations are tested by a plurality of standards, and they continue to be open to the scrutiny of the digital world, globally. Democratically engaged journalists position themselves as credible voices in the social verification process of digital media, encouraging the sharing and mutual critique of stories and views. Journalism is intrinsically committed to furthering dialogue, not simply relaying facts scrubbed clean of interpretation.

Journalists are partial about their aims—the broad aims of democracy and informed publics. But they should be impartial in method.

Given that journalism is now an activity available to professional and nonprofessional journalists, where almost anyone can commit “acts of journalism,” it is important that the ethic of democratically engaged journalism be embraced by citizens and professional journalists. How to embrace? The history of journalism ethics shows how new ethical perspectives have come about because of changes in media.19 Influential media outlets, journalists, journalism scholars, and journalism societies begin to articulate the aims and values of the new ethic, which are explicitly expressed in codes of ethics, which are then taught in journalism schools, and which form the topics of books and conferences. Change in journalism ethics is bottom-up, messy, and practical: new forms of media, new social and political conditions, and new issues force a rethinking of existing principles. My hope is that this “re-invention” of journalism ethics, as democratically engaged journalism, will follow a similar crooked path, from a proposal to a reality in practice and in the study of journalism ethics.

In conclusion, democratically engaged journalism is inclusive, participatory, and accountable, a journalism engaged “in-the-community” through a standard-based method. Democratically engaged journalists, as professionals or citizens, create a space for rational, global dialogue amid the chaotic, manipulative sphere of global media. To embrace democratically engaged journalism is to partner with other responsible communicators, to offer citizens an alternative to the many agents of “fake news” and ideological “mind warfare” who posture as agents of democracy.

Dr. Stephen J. A. Ward is the Distinguished Lecturer of Ethics at the University of British Columbia. He is the former director of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia.


1. I coined the phrase “democratically engaged journalists” for a series of articles on how American journalists should respond to the election of President Trump, posted in March 2017 on the US-based website Mediashift. For details, the reader can read the Mediashift articles and my forthcoming Engaged Objectivity.

2. John Hardwig, “The Role of Trust in Knowledge,” Journal of Philosophy 88 (1991): 693. For a review of the literature on trust and rationality, see Jeremy Wanderer and Leo Townsend, “Is It Rational to Trust?” Philosophical Compass 8 (2013): 1–14.

3. Martin Hollis, Trust Within Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

4. For an accessible summary of these experiments, see Katherine Hawley, Trust: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 21–45.

5. Olli Lagerspetz, Trust, Ethics and Human Reason (London: Bloomsbury, 2015): 11. Lagerspetz argues that asking the general question, “What is trust?” is a methodological mistake. Instead, this general question “dissolves itself into context-sensitive issues about particular cases and kinds of trust.”

6. For trust as commitment, see Hawley, Trust: A Very Short Introduction, 3–12.

7. For the distinctive nature of the personal sphere of life, see John Macmurray, Persons in Relation (New York: Humanity Books, 1998).

8. Stephen J. A. Ward, The Invention of Journalism Ethics, 2nd ed. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015): 222.

9. I use “digital” as a highly general term that covers many areas of media communications today. For some people, “digital” refers only to the technological aspect of media, in terms of advancements in computers, Internet, and software. “Cyber”—another widely used term —is reserved for the use of digital technology for interactions among individuals, groups, and societies. I don’t restrict “digital” to the “hardware” of technology. I prefer “digital” because it encompasses a wider variety of developments than cyber and it points directly at the technological revolution that underlies the “cyber” revolution and its issues. However, the reader can, if they prefer, substitute “cyber” for “digital” in this article, without doing violence to its main arguments.

10. “Pre-digital media” means news media before digital communication and online journalism. Here I am thinking of the mass, commercial press of newspapers and broadcasters in the twentieth century before the Internet and personal computers.

11. Stephen J. A. Ward and Herman Wasserman, “Toward an Open Ethics: Implications of New Media Platforms for Global Ethics Discourse,” in Media Accountability: Who Will Watch the Watchdog in the Twitter Age?, ed. William A. Babcock (London: Routledge, 2012): 19–36.

12. On how journalism is a participatory enterprise with citizens providing video and eye-witness accounts, see Jane B. Singer et al., Participatory Journalism (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

13. For an argument that transparency is an important but not sufficient norm for responsible journalism practice, see Stephen J. A. Ward, “The Magical Concept of Transparency,” in Ethics for Digital Journalists: Emerging Best Practices, eds. Lawrie Zion and David Craig (New York: Routledge, 2015): 45–58.

14. Hilary Putnam, Pragmatism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995): 21.

15. Wolfgang Kunne, Conceptions of Truth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003): 388–91.

16. At a NATO conference on communication in a global, digital world, in Riga, Latvia, in July 2017, I listened to speaker after speaker warn political agencies and states that they must become as sophisticated and “hip” in using new media as young people and popular online “voices.” One speaker decried: “We must stop talking to our 21st century audiences in 20th century forms based on technology from the 19th century.”

17. In my forthcoming Democratically Engaged Journalism, I investigate the philosophical flaws of the news objectivity model and argue for a richer notion of objectivity called “pragmatic objectivity.”

18. For my theory of pragmatic objectivity, see Ward, Invention of Journalism Ethics, 261–316.

19. On how revolutions follow on media (technological) revolutions, see Ward, Invention of Journalism Ethics.