Abstract: Public trust in journalism has fallen disconcertingly low. This study sets out to understand the news industry’s credibility crisis by comparing public perceptions of journalism with public perceptions of another institution facing similar trust challenges: healthcare. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 31 US adults, we find that although both healthcare and journalism face public distrust, members of the public generally tend to feel more trusting of individual doctors than they do of individual journalists. This is because people (a) perceive doctors to be experts in their field and (b) engage more frequently with doctors than they do with journalists. Consequently, our interviewees described treating their doctors as “fact-checkers” when it comes to health information they find online, demonstrating trust in their physicians despite their lack of trust in healthcare more broadly. Meanwhile, the opposite unfolds in journalism: Instead of using legitimate news sources to fact-check potential misinformation, people feel compelled to “fact-check” legitimate news by seeking alternative sources of corroboration. We conclude that, to improve their credibility among the public, journalists must strike the right balance between persuading the public to perceive them as experts while also pursuing opportunities to engage with the public as peers.
Keywords: engagement; expertise; healthcare; journalism; news audiences; public trust