Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Trust Gap Between Journalists and Companies Is Widening, as Is the Reporter-Public Relations Gap

Jim Prosser of Edelman:

As I see it, there are three distinct structural shifts happening that both explain and give merit to a shift in emphasis toward businesses using their direct channels instead of relying on media coverage. Collectively, they have some profound implications for companies, communicators, and journalists.

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Put simply, Americans on the whole trust business as an institution more than the press as an institution. That’s not conjecture. It’s backed by data.

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There are far more stories businesses want to tell than there are reporters to tell them. How do we know that? Let’s look at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In 2000, there were about two people working in public relations for every one working reporter in America. By 2019, that spread more than doubled to over five, driven by both an increase in PR jobs and a decrease in reporter jobs. By 2029, BLS projects the spread will keep expanding to over six.

I found this post illuminating and alarming. A collective trust in business marketing — or “storytelling”, as Prosser puts it — over good journalism means that more credence is given to media that has an inherent conflict of interest over that which, ostensibly, does not.

A common retort to this is that media outlets have, for years, degraded their own trust. CNN spends hours a day broadcasting talking head shouting matches; entire books have been dedicated to the inadequacies of the New York Times; Fox News is Fox News. This is not a U.S.-exclusive phenomenon: trust in the media, scientists, and academics has fallen in Canada, too.

But this trust gap is almost inherently unfair. When companies screw up, they barely flinch. Consider that, as of last year, 71% of Americans surveyed have a favourable opinion of Facebook. This is after years of behaviour that should have destroyed its reputation.

Media, on the other hand, operates within far tighter margins of trust. Brooke Gladstone, writing for the New York Times in 2015:

Americans say they want accuracy and impartiality, but the polls suggest that, actually, most of us are seeking affirmation. Americans want the news to be patriotic, which explains the big drop in 2004 when stories abounded about Abu Ghraib, the 9/11 commission’s slam on the government’s handling of terrorism, and the Senate Intelligence Committee finding that the White House “overstated” the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Plus, it was an election year. Trust in news media always dips in election years.

We tend to trust media that reflects our own views, and inherently distrust outlets that do not. Companies are perceived to be more neutral; the view that they are only interested in the bottom line is both cynical and perceived as more trustworthy than journalism. I think this is false, but it is what surveys suggest. Prosser makes several suggestions in this article about how media can improve reader trust — many of which have been made before — but I do not think they will be effective. For example, here’s one idea:

While the means of news distribution have changed starkly over the previous decade, news presentation online remains largely the same: text with occasional links and photos, sometimes video, presented in a format that basically tracks the print experience. There’s a meaningful opportunity here to look at means of presenting stories that reinforce trust: presenting primary source documents in line instead of just writing in reference to them, detailing how a piece was sourced in ways people understand […]

“Present primary sources” sounds like a slam-dunk, right? If a publication has documentation of something and shows it, the story should speak for itself. But this has mixed results. In 2004, records supposedly denigrating George W. Bush’s military service were shown to be created in Microsoft Word because those documents were available. On the other hand, even after a full summary was released by the White House of a call between then-U.S. president Donald Trump and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, less than half of Republicans believed news reports about the substance of the call. I am sure you can find plenty of similar examples from different political parties and orientations; these are my own biases.

One positive note that I found while researching for this: Canadians are more trusting of local media, as are Americans (PDF).