Repairing the [UN]repairable
In his speech to Congress in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”
If ever there was a time to act anew on those words of wisdom, it is now. Whether you’re in publishing, education, a white/blue-collared industry or government, you’ve probably felt the rising tide of fear, uncertainty and doubt in your colleagues, friends, families, communities, and perhaps, even yourself.
Every morning we seem to wake up to news that we wished we had slept through. Are things worse than they were in the 19th century? Probably not — it’s just that we know too much about them.
We are so connected and so bombarded with content, we can’t escape the internet and all that it reveals to us — whether its tales are true, false or somewhere in the gray zones of alternative facts.
According to Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer, the four pillars of society that we have come to rely on as sacrosanct are under threat. And one can’t help but wonder if things really are as dire as reported or if we’ve been programmed to be believe that journalism is fake, governments corrupted, businesses untrustworthy, and civil society irrelevant.
Trust levels in government have dropped in 14 markets, making it the least trusted institution of all.
Second from the bottom is media where trust in 17 countries has never been lower.
Overall trust in mainstream media fell to 57%, followed by social media at 41%. Meanwhile, trust in online-only media increased to 51% — a bump of five points since 2012.
According to, president and CEO, Richard Edelman, “People now view media as part of the elite. The result is a proclivity for self-referential media and reliance on peers. The lack of trust in media has also given rise to the fake news phenomenon and politicians speaking directly to the masses. Media outlets must take a more local and social approach.”
That being said, taking a look at the news consumers of the future — teenagers — the data showed that teens are actually more trusting of mainstream media than adults which is encouraging, but they’d rather have algorithms select articles for them than traditional editors. I found that interesting; they trust media to some extent, but not the editors of that media.
Wondering why, I recalled some research commissioned by the Knight Foundation last summer that looked at how 14- to 24-year-olds conceptualize and consume news. According to Knight, there is widespread skepticism about the accuracy of the news by young people who assume that bias is in much of the news they read. Bias — there’s that ugly 4-letter word again! It was a recurring theme in the study and one which may account for the lack of trust teenagers have in editors when it comes to curating content for them.
But perhaps media’s future is not as ominous as we’re made to believe
Edelman reported that teenagers place a higher importance on facts than their parents and rely more on experts for information rather than the filter bubble on social media. In fact, they trust experts four times more than people like themselves.
The January 2017 Ipsos/BuzzFeed study showed that trust in US media was higher than what we’ve been led to believe — a report that mirrored one area of Knight’s research which stated that young people who said that they had little confidence in mainstream news, still expressed high levels of trust in specific news brands.
And then there was the December 2016 YouGov study that painted an even more optimistic picture.
The Knight Foundation also found that 90% of college students believe a free press is at least as important to democracy today as it was 20 years ago, if not more so; and that news sources whose biases were known were considered to be more credible.
So despite what we hear about young people not caring about hard news, the fact is that today’s youth often consult a variety of news sources to verify stories and actively seek out opposing viewpoints in order to educate themselves through a range of perspectives.
The majority of college students also check a traditional news organization first when looking for an accurate picture on what’s happening in the world.
But then, why do only 42% of them think that the reporters and journalists covering that news are trustworthy?
So many studies and so many inconsistencies.
If mistrust in media as bad as Edelman, Knight, and Gallup have reported, then how does one explain the surge in digital subscriptions we’ve been seeing in the last few months in the US?
In contemplating the future of media and the question of whether faith in it can be restored, I decided to dig a little deeper.
According to Professor Jonathan Ladd’s book, “Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters”, mistrust in media is not a new phenomenon. It was low as far back as the 1930s, with 1940 polls indicating only modest levels of trust at best.
Then in 1956, that all changed when the American National Election Study (ANES) found that 66% of Americans believed newspapers were fair in their reporting of news.
But by the 1990s, media trust was once again in dire straits. During the 1992 presidential election, a trendy bumper sticker advised, “Annoy the Media, Re-elect Bush.”
And 20 years before Donald Trump’s maligning of media, Republican presidential nominee, Bob Dole, told voters, “We’ve got to stop the liberal bias in this country. Don’t read the stuff. Don’t watch television. You make up your own mind. Don’t let them make up your mind for you. We are not going to let the media steal this election. The country belongs to the people, not The New York Times.”
Trust in media has been on a rollercoaster long before the internet announced its pending demise. The plummet of 1972 — 1993 was greater than what we’re seeing today.
Ladd’s research is fascinating and worth further exploration if you have the time. He submits that economic pressures brought on by digital disruption have driven media outlets to publish more “soft” news (e.g. celebrity news, gossip, etc.) which has led to reduced public trust in the institution. And that “partisan elite criticism”, a consequence of political incentives, also influences why the press is held in such low esteem.
Throughout the book trust in media is shown to be influenced by a number of external factors, not the least of which is the level of polarization in politics — the more polarized parties are, the lower the trust in media.
We can certainly see this from a March 2017 poll by Morning Consult/POLITICO where partisan divides are clearly evident in terms of trust, or lack thereof, in journalists and reporters.
In the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s, party competition and economic pressures reached historic lows which led to higher trust, but as polarization and economic pressures rose, media became under fire and hasn’t been able to recover.
So it begs the question, “Is media trust in crisis, or is it just a consequence of economics and politics?” I don’t have the answer, but I do believe one can’t become too complacent. Publishers need to start mending fences with the public.
Publishers can’t change the economy or the political landscape, but they can look inside themselves, their corporate culture, the content they publish and how they run their newsrooms to find ways to restore their reputation.
Accuracy has been identified by college students as one of the most important components for establishing trust in the news, while timeliness and clarity are considered the next two most
important features. Accuracy was along the most important factor that drive people to trust news reporting sources according to a recent Media Insight Project study.
By contrast, the two most common reasons for mistrust in a news source are perception of bias and inaccuracies. These issues look pretty easy to fix.
• Be accurate, clear, and timely in your reporting
• Tell the whole truth and don’t cherry pick the facts that suit your opinion
But that’s not all that needs to be done. According to Edelman, it’s essential that publishers recognize that there has been a fundamental shift in relationship between themselves and their audience. Talking at readers or doing things for readers no longer works.
This aligns well with what serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and best-selling author, Leonard Brody, shared with me in September 2016 when I interviewed him about his latest book, The Great Rewrite.
According to the two-time Emmy nominated media visionary, in the past, power was controlled from a top-down approach whether that be from presidents, publishers or principals. But as a result of massive and rapid changes in technology and social behavior that pyramid of power has been completely inverted in almost every facet of our lives. This is a new reality most media executives can’t wrap their heads around and they’re paying the price for not being able to innovate within in today’s people-powered planet.
Can we repair the unrepairable?
Someone once said, “Trust is like a mirror…once it’s broken you can never look at it the same again.” I’m not so sure that is true. Human beings have a great capacity to forgive. But winning back trust doesn’t mean repairing the mirror. It means creating a new mirror — one that reflects the new, trustworthy you.
By embracing a new culture, vision, and people-first business ethic, publishers still have a chance to reinvent themselves and regain the trust of readers. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy; the process can be laborious and sometimes painful. But we have to start somewhere.