One of the core themes of the upcoming We Media Global Forum is trust — or specifically, “How trust and empowerment shape our global, connected society.” At the big-think event in London early next month we will get our first look at the BBC-Reuters-Media Center global poll on trust and no doubt spend a good amount of time discussing how new media empowers the individual and how citizen generated media impacts the media business. The very nature of trust will be questioned and I suspect a new definition of trust may emerge.
As a warm-up to the big event, I have been asked to help kickoff a discussion about this topic. I want to try and get to the root of the issue. What is trust? Why do you trust someone (or some thing)? How does trust spread? And does it matter?
Trust is obviously different for everyone. We all have our own filters, right? And yet, there is a good chance that I – along with much of our society – will be inclined to trust something if others do. Do you trust something because your friend tells you to? Probably. Do I trust what my wife tells me? I’d be stupid not to.
People trust all sorts of things. Consider the following:
- A poll last September showed declining trust in Congress among the American people. Not much of a surprise — people view the federal government as bloated and inefficient. But the government has always been bloated and inneficient, so why would people start to lose faith all of a sudden? Shouldn’t the numbers be low all the time?
- Another poll recently found that 81 percent of people trust their pharmacist’s recommendation when choosing an over-the-counter medication. Don’t pharmacists get courted by the drug companies like all other medical professionals? I would think their judgment might be impacted.
- A poll last summer stated that Americans do not trust business or the people who run it because they felt wrongdoing was widespread in industry. Good for them — but then why do so few people protest big business, boycott their products, or seek employment at the small businesses who don’t suffer from the same ethnical lapses? Their lack of trust in industry must be not that big a deal.
- And despite voicing concerns about internet security and privacy, a recent survey noted that Americans continue to trust email, surf the Web for advice about intimate aspects of their lives, make friends online, and turn to Web sites for health information, for spending their money, and for material about their finances. If that’s the case, then, pssst… over here. I’d be happy to offer you my ‘expert’ advice in exchange for a fee. Just log on and send me your credit card number.
Trust is about believing. Why shouldn’t you have faith that things are going to turn out ok in the absence of first-hand knowledge to suggest that that will not be the case. I am a very trusting person — unless I can prove that someone is trying to steer me in the wrong direction, I will probably do whatever they tell me. And, I don’t spend very much time trying to find reasons not to trust something.
So how does this relate to journalism and the media? Well first, I am absolutely among the half of Americans who say they trust the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. Why wouldn’t I? The media brings stories to me from all over the world, things I can’t imagine being able to see first hand. They ask questions and provide their insights. I don’t have to agree with their analysis, but I trust that they are reporting what they saw. There have been a few bad apples in the bunch, but they don’t represent the whole group.
Moreover, for every poll that suggests that trust in the media is declining, I could probably find a survey that shows people consuming more media than ever before. So if people don’t have that much trust in the media, why are they buying so much of it? Heck, Pew reported the other day that 50 million people use the internet as their primary source for news. One in six Americans going online to get news — something must be motivating them.
If anything, I would say the options for consuming media are having as much an impact on the amount of media being purchased as anything. I don’t have a lot of faith that the media is telling me the whole story about a situation — not because I think they are trying to hide anything from me, but because you can’t fit the whole story into three paragarphs of a wire story. I suspect media executives would argue that you can’t get people to pay attention to more than a two-minute blurb on the TV news, and if you can’t get the eyeballs, you can’t get the sponsors to pay for it. That’s a fair point, but its a different question entirely from the one about trust. The two can’t be connected in my mind. If you produce good media and make it available to people, they will consume it. And if it matches what they believe about the world, or what they see happening first hand, they will trust that it is accurate and there will be no questions.
That’s a lot, and not all of it makes sense I am sure. So let me turn it over to you. What do you think it is? What role does trust play in the media? And how is it changing?