Trust In The Media: A Pre-Discussion

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?

TAG: wemedia

Previous Comments

Mmm… do I trust my own beliefs enough to cast the first comment? Hell, why not! {;-) Trust matters because ultimately it’s DYI and personal. It’s available without conversations, contracts, mobs or translations. You can withdraw it at the drop of a hat and that’s how it should be, no dramas, we’re only human after all. Trust is cheaper than faith to lose, misplace, abuse, and pay lipservice to in blogs. It’s all about instinct and experience. It means nothing without context and everything to do with real power. I trust this forum will be worthwhile. I trust what it says on the tin is genuine.

I think that the crisis of trust in the media is a global one, but for completely different reasons. This post is all about how Americans do or don’t trust their media (and politicians and business leaders). What I see here is that people don’t trust American (and to a lesser extent European) media either.

The problem is, when people say they don’t trust CNN or the BBC, who can they trust? They don’t trust local media much either – they know when it’s owned by business or political interests. As an example, anecdotal only: my Iraqi students don’t believe CNN or the BBC, but they don’t trust Al-Jazeera either, and Iraqi news is beneath contempt, in their eyes, so who do they trust?

The answer is, unfortunately for us, nobody. They aren’t looking for a media outlet they can trust, it’s not a competition we can win. They’re not listening to any of us, and they’re becoming more and more ignorant, out of a fear of being lied to.

Some of them, the more savvy ones, are reading blogs and listening to piarte radio. The rest are listening to friends and family, or religious and community leaders.

Maybe I’m just worried about being out of a job, but this seems to me to be a problem for society and community in the long term.

wondering how the We Media conference is going to add to or change in two days the probably hundreds of thousands of studies and polls designed to find out whom we trust, what we trust, why we trust, and how that relates to media consumption? Trust is situational and personal. Therefore, we never can know everything about it. Concerning the conference, I guess I’m hoping the BBC-Reuters-Media Center global poll on trust is a real doozie. Because, frankly, this subject seems fairly well researched already.

I have been studying trust in various ways for a long time. One major area is that trust-flow needs to be audited just as much as cash-flow since it explains whether an organisation is compounding goodwill or badwill. Badwill is caused by conflicts and silos. As Anderson found out in an intangibles (service or network economy) world, running out of trust can bankrupt you just as easily as running out of cash.

The idea of auditing trust is interesting, but I wonder whether in the media business there is much difference in levels of trust of different organisations. I would not be surprised to read that people lump all media together in the ‘don’t trust them at all’ category, and don’t differentiate between them. The New York Times’ loss of credibility has not been a boon for other newspapers in competition with them – I suspect it’s hurt their competitors as much as themselves.

Brian Reich has elicited a number of core issues. The reputation of some leading newspapers has been shattered recently (NY Times, Le Monde), but their circulation has been diminishing for a longer time (and where would they be without massive lump sales to airlines ?). Moreover, their sales and subscriptions are not necessarily linked to trust : people also seem to consume media much as they consume entertainment or adorn their Xmas tree, one of those things one does perfunctorily nowadays. Actually, in major cities specially, s/he who is not subscribed to some media or wired to the Web is seen as little short of a cave wo/man.

More to the point, trust may well be a matter of believing, and that is faith, though the word itself may be a misnomer here, as trust seems to be relative and only valid within certain safeguards. Put into perspective, people’s distrust on their currency led Weimar Germany to runaway hyperinflation (from 4.2 Marks to the dollar in 1922 to 4,200,000,000,000 Marks by November 1923) so that a letter cost 20 billions no less, and a loaf of bread a full wheelbarrow of notes ! That’s one reason why central banks have been so cautious with interest rates to maintain public trust, just think of it : trading your house or car for something so intrinsically worthless as a paper check or a bank transfer, really requires faith in both the banking and electronic systems, and not just today : tomorrow and therefore all the days after, as the morrow is always only a day away. On the human level, with couples, friends or famous people, it doesn’t matter how consistent or stolid one has been, one misdemeanor is enough to chip one’s reputation : the doubt it may happen again is now alive, and that is the best scenario. Since these two extremes are good examples of how people cherish trust, the word may be used unduly to talk about something less quintessential to their lives as journalism, considering one doesn’t pay rents or live with it. Last, as trust may flicker within any person, grow with empathy or vanish with deception, how is trust to be trusted ?

Brain, thanks for your pre-discussion on trust in the media. You can be trusted to launch a good dialogue! First, some small comments on the sorts of things that people trust that you put up for us to consider:

Trust in Congress: The more we know them, the more we know them. We are so exposed to every single little thing that is going on with Congress, they’re even worse than we thought because they are increasingly less able to control how much we know about them.

81% of people trust their pharmacist’s recommendation: I think that people trust the pharmacist because they know the pharmacist carries generics, and you can just walk down the street and find a new one if you don’t like the service. 81% is amazing, really. That’s a high level of trust! Maybe the other 19% don’t have an opinion.

Americans do not trust business or the people who run them, so why do so few people protest big business? Bottom line? The bottom line. People shop price and convenience.

Internet security and privacy: Why do people trust and use it? I think the answer is – “everyone else does,” convenience, entertainment, and price. You can’t beat free or cheap.

In reviewing these examples, a realist might conclude that humans are selfish and lazy, don’t like to think too hard, and are creatures of habit, whether they’re running companies, or consuming those products and services, and they tend not to change their habits until the bottom line or some crisis gets their attention.

So you ask, how does trust relate to journalism and the media, where polls indicate that trust is, in fact, declining?

A cynic might conclude that people are thinking and caring even less than what the realist thought was the case, that like a glutton, the quantity means more than the quality. Otherwise you would expect that people’s discretion would mean that they consumed less media, but of a higher trustworthiness/credibility.

But an optimist might conclude that consumers of media are operating on the premise that if you increase the data flow, with the right personal filters, you’ll actually get more information.

So maybe before one tries to identify the role and importance of trust in media, one needs to figure out what motivates people to go there in the first place. The definition of trust itself differs depending on what motives the user.

Clearly, for many consumers of media, whether it’s journalism, entertainment, advertising, community, what motivates them is diversion and entertainment, and not necessarily collecting facts or making well-informed decisions. What would trust be for that group, given their expectations? Well, fulfillment of their needs would be along the lines of “make me feel good,” “make me laugh,” “give me someone to admire or to denigrate” and “surprise me.” So basically, trust here would have nothing to do with deep social issues or morality, changing the world, or anything even approaching faith. It’s really just about delivering the psychological goods. So for an organization delivering the goods to this market, you can get there with the right polls, consumer research, demographic info, etc. In other words, for both sides of the equation – the media provider and the media consumer – it’s really about bottom line and self-gratification.

Now there’s another group of media consumers who want to get things done, who want to change the world, maybe just their own world, but maybe the larger world as well, who want to make informed decisions, who have the sense that they are spending their time and don’t want to waste it, because at that moment, at least, they aren’t seeking entertainment, they want somet

hing substantial and real. For them, trust is much deeper and certainly more pragmatic. It is tied to results.

Most people go back and forth from one group to the other, but some people (maybe most?) constantly mix those two things up, so it’s all infotainment, all the time. If that’s the case, that we have a large part of the media-consuming public who wants this mix of fantasy and fact – just look at the huge popularity of “reality tv” shows and shallow news coverage, what is trust to them? Well, it’s probably a combination of “entertain me” and “give me news of the kind I like to hear with the prospective I like to hear at the speed and depth I like to get it.” This group will not be as disappointed when their trust in a company or a media organization or a news “personality” changes course, moves on to the next bottom-line-driven project. They may even enjoy the circus of it all. Because, after all, it’s infotainment. So poll this group when you want to know what trust means to thrill seekers who will never be let down as long as it’s a good ride.

So if you have these two somewhat distinctly orientated groups, and a third that’s in a constant state of mixing it all up, you can not approach them all the same way in terms of what they expect from you, and how you deliver it. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why traditional media producers and providers target specific demographics so carefully and why you can’t find a universal model for trust anymore in the media. And maybe that’s why the internet is thriving – because everyone can find just the right mix of fantasy and fact to fit their taste. And so those different tastes may need their corresponding flavors of trust.

What do I mean by flavors of trust? It’s just that depending on the expectations of the user, i.e. what they need, trust will mean different things.

For example, the infotainment-mix-it-all-up-group needs just enough trust to stick with you for as long as it takes to get their satisfaction right then, while they are consuming that news or that blog or that advertisement, or that reality tv show, or whatever it is that they’re riding at that time. It doesn’t need a long history, it doesn’t require social responsibility beyond a certain comfort level, it doesn’t require dependability into a distant future. Just enough trust to make how they are spending their time feel like legitimate entertainment, with a little bit of something that they can put to use somewhere down the road. In other words, the flavor requirement is “not too strong, not too weak, and please, no bad aftertaste,” unless it’s followed by something really tart and entertaining.

The group that is seeking more fact-based fulfillment, means that issues of character and history, doing the right thing, future effects, personal fallout, call for something deeper and also more robust. These are the people that journalists used to care about (and some still do) as their ideal audience. Trust for this group is easy to identify – it’s traditional, it’s moral, it’s socially responsible, it’s big. The flavor is like a strong cup of coffee or tea that was grown and picked and brewed in ways that we understand and condone and always delivers, even when opinions vary, because people in this group know that there are different roasts and varieties, and that’s really where the differences are in terms of preferences – they fall along economic, political, and social lines. And they can find plenty of flavors and food for thought in the new media, and are perhaps, the best hope for the new media in terms of making the world better because of it.

Now let’s not forget about that first group – the one out for pure entertainment and self-gratification – they aren’t looking for a mix of facts and fun. For that group, trust is simply and purely, “gratify me,” “give me my times and moneys worth in escape or strokes.” Trust really doesn’t mean much more for that group other than reliability and consistency, no moral dimension or social responsibility.

If the trust in new voices/bloggers results in a new hierachy of news producers that we come to rely on for analysis or factual info, then I guess this is something newspapers or TV news execs will not want to ignore.

TV newsmakers probably aren’t losing too much

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