The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism recently released a report that attempts to unearth why people have lost trust in mainstream media news sources. The multi-country study takes an unflinching look at some of the reasons for the decline in trust, which appears to fall under the following three reasons: a perception of bias, the existence of ‘spin,’ and the belief that there is a hidden agenda.
Trust in media is in trouble
One of the more intriguing things about this study was the methodology used. Instead of surveying people using a set of standard responses from which the individual being surveyed could choose, survey participants were asked to provide their reasons for low trust in media in their own words, in free-form response boxes.
The use of a free-form response box allows survey participants to describe their concerns about the media without pre-determined categorization—which is useful when trying to identify motivating factors, which could vary greatly from individual to individual. In short, this type of open-ended response mechanism removes the survey author’s bias from the equation by recognizing that the individual being surveyed might have objections that haven’t even been considered.
Even through using qualitative analysis like this, the study by Reuters was able to put responses into groupings that should concern anyone who relies on earned or shared media for clients. Some of the more notable findings:
- When asked if the media does a good job in helping people separate fact from fiction, the numbers look fairly good. Roughly 40 percent indicated that yes, the media does do a good job at this. However, 35 percent “neither agreed nor disagreed” with the statement, and a solid 25 percent said no—citing “media bias, exaggeration, and low standards” as reasons.
- Social media fared poorly on the same question, separating fact from fiction. Respondents cited “no checks, agenda-driven” and “low quality, unreliable” as reasons that 41 percent say social media is not helpful in separating the truth from fiction.
- Sixty-seven percent of respondents are concerned about “bias, spin, and hidden agendas.”
Trust takes time—losing it doesn’t
One of the more disturbing revelations in the survey is very important for PR practitioners and communicators to note: trust takes a long time to build, but can quickly fade. This finding is tied to age ranges and who trusts media reports. Generally speaking, younger people and low-income people are less likely to trust the media, while older and higher-income are more likely to say they trust the news. This split has ramifications over the long term, because if those who distrust the media—particularly young people—are not give reasons to trust, the distrusting behavior becomes ingrained.
Videos are trusted—and that might be a problem
Even more challenging is the finding that people generally tend to trust their eyes more than what they read. We’ve seen an uptick in the use of video across communications channels for a variety of reasons. Video is now a core component of content marketing, and increases everything from consumers making a decision to purchase, to better click-through rates on emails. So, it stands to reason that the news, which has long had video in the form of television content, is also bolstering video content on websites.
However, video can be digitally altered. If video bolsters the veracity of claims, we can be assured that someone, somewhere, will take advantage of that and alter video with the intent to mislead. If we can no longer believe our eyes, what will that do to trust?
In fact, instances of this have already surfaced within news organizations—but the images that were altered were static photos, not video. The BBC recently uncovered a completely fake photojournalist, whose images had been used by a number of professional news organizations.
Back in July, a team of computer scientists released a paper that demonstrated how they used AI—artificial intelligence—to digitally alter the words coming out of a person’s mouth. The video that accompanied the announcement was startling, not just because the manipulation appeared so seamless—the AI-altered video featured a world leader—former President Barack Obama.
Granted, the reason that the researchers chose President Obama was that with so much publicly available video, it was easier to build the database of facial movements and voice patterns they would need to make the end result believable. But with so much video being created, is it really that far-fetched to think that other public figures could be made to “appear” to say things they actually did not?
What should PR practitioners do with this information?
We are heading into uncharted waters in many ways. Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose, and we now are in a situation where we need to question even what we see with our own eyes. In a world where PR pros are pressed to make rapid decisions, we will need to train ourselves to take a step back and ask “is this true?” before acting. The ramifications of reacting too slowly need to be weighed against the ramifications of acting based on falsified data, because we do not want to further exacerbate the fracturing of trust in media.
Although PR is far more than just earned media, the independent validation of earned media is important—so important that I’m betting if you asked the typical layperson what PR is, they’d mention working with the media. They would probably also say something about “spin,” which is our own industry-wide problem to work on, particularly as it relates to the bias and trust issues mentioned early in this piece. It all ties together, and as an industry, addressing this trust issue needs to be a priority in 2018 and going forward.