By Jim Conaghan, VP of research and industry analysis at the Newspaper Association of America
Trust is a curious virtue. The English writer Graham Greene wrote in his novel The Ministry of Fear,“But it is impossible to go through life without trust; that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.” Most people are not so imprisoned, and have a substantial web of trusted connections both personal and societal.
You might get a different impression from reading a recent report. A widely-circulated Gallup poll on trust in media in June reported that 22% of the public has a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers for news, with television at 19% and the Internet at 18%. This tracking poll further noted that levels of confidence across the board have declined fairly steadily over the decade. The Gallup report concludes, “How these platforms can restore confidence with the American public is not clear, especially as editorial standards change and most outlets lack the broad reach once available to major newspapers and broadcasters.”
No doubt the report engendered a Pavlovian reaction of hand wringing, navel-gazing and woe-is-us wailing among media followers.
Unsurprisingly, there are other data that point to a different conclusion.
Nielsen Media Research conducted a survey for NAA in early 2013 on consumer engagement with media. The study, which sampled 5,000 adults, examined 11 different metrics for engagement, including elements such as trust, public service and advertising efficacy. When asked whether different media “are trustworthy,” for instance, 56% attributed that quality to newspapers (print and online). National print newspapers ranked first (58%), followed by local print newspapers (56%), national newspaper websites (56%), local radio news (56%), and local newspaper websites (55%). Most media sources were above the 50% level, with blogs and social networks trailing lower.
Consumers trust media sources not only for news, but also for advertising content. A different Nielsen study, Global Trust in Advertising and Brand Messages, conducted worldwide in 2013 with more than 29,000 respondents across 58 countries, revealed that in North America, 61% of respondents trusted newspaper advertising. In fact, a slightly higher number—65%—indicated they took some action as a result of seeing the ad.
So why does the Gallup survey show contrary results? There are a number of reasons. One may have to do with the nature of asking a generic question about media types—television, newspaper, internet, etc.—rather than about more specific media identifiers. For instance, probing for “your local newspaper” or “your local radio station” likely yields different results, as would listing the specific newspapers or television and radio stations or websites. An appropriate analogy is comparing the extremely low favorable ratings for the U.S. Congress compared with higher ratings when voters are asked about their local Congressman. And overwhelmingly, incumbents are re-elected each cycle.
Another reason involves the difficulty in researching attitudes about media and distinguishing them from all the other influences on the popular mindset. A recent academic study from the University of Haifa analyzing data about trust in media from 44 countries sheds new light on the subject. Results showed audience trust in media is not limited to news consumption and media influence. The authors were testing two hypotheses: mainstream news exposure will be associated with trust in media and exposure to nonmainstream or “alternative” news is negatively associated with trust in media.
The data revealed that both “newspaper exposure and television and radio exposure were positively and significantly associated with trust in media: the more people watch TV
news and read newspapers, the more they trust the media.” Further, the study authors found a correlation between levels of interpersonal trust and trust in media. The higher the level of interpersonal trust, the higher the level of trust in media.
Interestingly, online sources used for political information were negatively correlated with levels of trust. Those who used online sources had lower levels of trust in media compared with those who did not use those sources for political information.
There are many questions on the topic of trust in media which can be pursued with additional research. Taking the Gallup poll results at face value is the wrong path to follow. Don’t trust it.