Finland provides an interesting case study on trust in the media in the digital era. The country is known to exhibit the greatest levels of trust in the political establishment, the government, as well as the media. In the Finnish “digital welfare state” the news is an inseparable part of the mechanism producing a high level of social trust within the welfare state system and they feature the highest level of media freedom and literacy in Europe.
Is a multi-method, interdisciplinary project of the University of Helsinki (2019-2021). It examines how Finnish audiences view the power of traditional news media and social media, along with their trust in these news sources. This article focuses on findings on the multiple, even contradictory experiences of trust in digital news by audiences – that is, news distributed in proprietary digital platforms of legacy news organizations as well as on social media. Our starting point is the working hypothesis that the more complex the (news) media landscape, the more complex the experiences of trust. In this article, we examine digital news through a framework of three distinct dimensions of trust in the media that are derived from earlier research, and given the significant changes in the production and consumption of news in the past decade (e.g., Broersma and Eldridge 2019), we also reflect our findings against two Finnish survey studies completed a decade ago (Karppinen et al. 2010; Matikainen 2009), with the following questions: RQ1: How do Finnish audiences experience the power of the news media as an institution in a digital news environment, and what level of trust do they have in the digital news media? RQ2: How does the digital environment impact trust in specific aspects of journalism? RQ3: How do audiences’ demographic characteristics and other dispositional traits factor into trust in digital news? Our multi-method project consists of four parts. First, a general survey on trust in news media was conducted in May 2019. This questionnaire was based on the two questionnaires mentioned above—one on legacy media (Karppinen et al. 2010) and one on social media (Matikainen 2009). Taloustutkimus, an independent full-service market research company, collected the data between 23 May 2020 and 31 May 2020 from 1,053. A subsequent survey focused on the most important information and news sources during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was conducted on 11 May 2020. For the third component of our research material, we conducted four audience focus group interviews and 12 expert theme interviews with educators, journalists, and policymakers in Fall 2019 and spring 2020. The interviews were designed to function as commentaries illustrating, deepening, and even challenging key survey findings. Finally, to highlight public debates on trust and the media in Finland, we collected a total of 116 news stories and related social media commentary published in November and December 2019 that broadly focused on the role of the media in Finnish society.
Our results depict relatively high levels of trust in the media in Finland and surprisingly little change in audiences’ perceptions of trustworthiness compared to the earlier surveys. The most defining characteristic of Finnish audiences is critical trust. Audiences are aware of the impacts of digitalization, especially the dangers of social media bubbles and disinformation. They also recognize market-driven imperatives of journalism; yet appreciate legacy news media in its different digital forms. Our study indicates that a balance between skepticism and reliance on news outlets can exist in audiences’ perceptions of the trustworthiness of digital news.