How The Media Destroys Trust -- And How We Can Build It Back Up

The Edelman Trust Barometer is an annual survey that has been going for 22 years, encompassing 28 countries and more than 36,000 respondents. The 2022 editioncame out 10 days ago, and its title is grim: “The Cycle of Distrust.”

The statistics are grimmer: mistrust in both government and media, says Edelman, feeds a “cycle of distrust [that] threatens social stability. Government and media feed [a] cycle of division and disinformation for votes and clicks[, leaving] NGOs and business pressured to take on societal problems beyond their abilities.”

Trust in government has plummeted. In the past year, government has lost 12 points on the ethical score and 41 points on the competence score. Among societal leaders, government leaders are the least trusted group.

Meanwhile, nearly half of respondents (46%) see the media as a divisive force in society. Seventy-six percent worry about fake news being used as a weapon. Fifty-eight percent say the media is not doing well on their pandemic response, while 66% say they’re not doing well on climate change solutions. Journalists were the second least-trusted leadership group, and 67% think journalists are purposely trying to mislead people.



So what’s the solution to regain trust? Edelman identified the top five areas for potential trust gains. Number one on the list, for every institution, was information quality: Is this institution a reliable source of trustworthy information?

Organizations looking to increase trust could also focus on their ethical score, which was calculated on four different dimensions: Is this institution purpose-driven? Is it honest? Is it fair? Do they have a vision for the future that I believe in?

This stuff matters, since 58% buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values; 60% use values to choose a place to work; and 64% invest based on them.

If I had to paraphrase my takeaways from the Barometer, it would boil down to two things: It’s more important than ever to be trustworthy, and yet we’re dropping the ball.

We’re dropping the ball because we consider clicks and views to be our primary purpose, rather than the necessary outcome of delivering high-quality content.

We’re dropping the ball because we’re addicted to being clever and snarky and antagonistic. We're addicted to picking sides, and to “winning.”

We’re dropping the ball because, as we get more polarized, we get rewarded for doubling down. As Thomas Edsall wrote in the New York Times this week, “Polarization has become a force that feeds on itself, gaining strength from the hostility it generates, finding sustenance on both the left and the right.”

But we don’t have to double down on polarization. We don’t have to feed the division machine. We can choose another way.

This week, President Biden got caught on a hot mic calling Fox News reporter Peter Doocy a “stupid son of a bitch”: crack cocaine for a polarized world. So what happened next? Biden called Doocy and apologized. And Doocy -- wait for it -- accepted the apology.

When Sean Hannity tried to push him to be angrier, Doocy replied, "Hey, Sean, the world is on the brink of, like, World War III right now with all of this stuff going on. I appreciate that the President took a couple of minutes out this evening while he was still at this desk to give me a call and clear the air… So we can move on. We can now move forward. There will be years -- three to seven years -- of opportunities to ask him about different stuff."

It’s more important than ever to be trustworthy. Let’s try, as Doocy and Biden did, to aim higher.

3 comments about "How The Media Destroys Trust -- And How We Can Build It Back Up".
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  1. Jim Meskauskas from Media Darwin, Inc., January 31, 2022 at 8:46 a.m.

    I love pieces like this. The issue raised is among the most important, dare I say, existential, at this time. The solutions suggested by the Barometer are fine... but they miss the even more important issue which is this: to be a trustworthy source, you have to represent reality as people experience it. The media is now connected to an algorithm that optimized on engagement (clicks, shares, time spent) and the content type that yields the most of that is enragement. Engagement through enragement doesn't represent reality as we experience it, it just excites our baser instincts. Legacy media has grown largely divorced from what most people experience every day, accentuating the aberrant to incite for clicks and page views. Even if it is "telling the truth" it is not reflecting a regular persons reality; a middle income, non-college educated, person just trying to make their way in the world. The reason doing this is important is because media, for all but the most rarified professional, academic, scientist, and researcher, is epistemology. It is how we are told about and come to know our world. Can you think of anything you know apart from that which has happened to or around you that hasn’t come to you from someone, somewhere, else? When media a) stopped reflecting our daily experiences (nationalized and homogenized news, entertainment catered to a particular interest group, advertising targeted to the most niche of audiences) and b) was attached to an algorithm to optimize for engagement, the basis for and practice of trust began and continues to erode.

  2. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, January 31, 2022 at 3:26 p.m.

    I think Jim is making a mistake lumping click bait sites like UK Daily News and Buzzfeed with mainstream media built on trust (NYT. WASH POST, ABC. NBC. CBS, LAT). Granted they too are optmizing clicks with more hystical headlines, but the content is about as trustworthy as you're gonna get. May not agree with liberal leanings, but their news is reflective of our world.

  3. Jim Meskauskas from Media Darwin, Inc., January 31, 2022 at 5:39 p.m.

    I've seen first hand how all of the major legacy media companies have used headlines that either are not directly manifest in the article or column the headline is associated with, or tweaked that headline throughout the day based on comments and other forms of engagement.  This is not to say some of those legacy media haven't accrued some level of "trustworthyness."  But the degree to which a reader receives what's transitted by those outlets as "true" or an accurate representation of what "is" is directly proportional to the degree which that reader ALREADY has faith in the source of the tranmsitted respresentation, whether that's based on experience or confirmation bias.  News outets like the NYT or WaPo aren't out right lying; but an interesting experiment to conduct is to read their headlines and the associated edit once as written, and then again leaving out the adjectives and adverbs, and any of their superlatives, and see how it changes the texture of the piece.  It's also an interesting experiement to compare those adjectives, adverbs, and their superlatives, between sources (e.g. NYT, WaPo, etc.).  You might be surprised at how simliar they are, as though they are all singing from the same hymnal.  The point is, it is with FAITH combined with experiential verification that one assumes the trustworthyness of a source.  

    The world these sources reflect is pretty rarified.  Most peolpe actually don't care about Coivd testing numbers, what a politician in some other state said about some OTHER politician in some OTHER state, or what Harry and Meghan are up to.  They do care about crime on their street, the state of their local school, and what's on sale at Publix.  You can draw a direct line between the demise of local news and its replacement by national coverage (and national owners), and the decay of trust in what is called news.  Coupled with attaching the entire apparatus to an algorithm that optimizes for engagement and a populace raised on a diet of self-esteem, eh viola!

    The reason Judith Miller's insistence on weapons of mass destruction were taken at face value by so many news readers is because she wrote for the NYTimes and so was assumed to be representing reality as it actually is, rather than as she was either being led to believe it was or wanted to believe it was.  It's possible to interrogate even the most reputable sources and find that they have been wrong without them losing  rightness in all circumstances.

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