Re­pair­ing the [UN]re­pairable

The Insider - - MONETIZATION -

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.

Re­build­ing trust

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.

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