Reestablishing Trust in the Media
Published on April 7, 2023, at 10:01 p.m.
by Kate Amberson.
Trust in the media is at a nearly all-time low in the United States. In fact, only 34% of Americans reported having a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust and confidence in the media in 2022, “just two points higher than the lowest that Gallup has recorded, in 2016 during the presidential campaign,” according to a poll done by Gallup.
Public relations professionals rely largely on earned media to deliver authentic content about clients and brands. The positive reputations of traditional media outlets are essential to building a credible brand reputation. Therefore, a lack of trust in the media can detrimentally impact the abilities of public relations professionals to deliver measurable outcomes to clients.
A battle for truth
According to Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer Global Report, business is the only consistently trusted institution today, topping NGOs, government and media. Edelman’s data displays a growth in polarization not only across the country but around the world. One of the contributing factors to this polarization is a lack of trust in the media, said the report.
An Identity Public Relations article about rebuilding trust in traditional media said that “in the communications business, trust is currency. As that currency gets devalued, the entirety of the institution gets called into question.”
The United States is one of the lowest ranked countries in the trust of traditional media, according to the 2023 Trust Barometer. Lindsey Wilkinson, associate editor at CIO Dive, believes that this lack of trust derives from inadequate media literacy.
“There are a lot more distrusting people than maybe there once was. I think a large part of that is media literacy, and people not understanding,” said Wilkinson. “Even if a link is on Facebook or other social media, you still need to check and make sure that it’s a reliable source.”
Tom Arenberg, a news media instructor at The University of Alabama and former media professional, said while most media is reliable, the broadcasting of fake news by outlets can cause irreparable harm.
“Media is not serving the public unless it verifies everything that it disseminates,” said Arenberg. “For some people, their mistrust of the media is a visceral hate.”
According to the 2023 Trust Barometer, 42% of individuals say that the media is a “leading source” of false or misleading information. Consumers crave authenticity from businesses, brands, organizations and the media, now more than ever. The increasing transition from traditional media to social media further expedites the growth of distrust. Because platforms now give all users the ability to become “verified,” it can be exceedingly difficult to determine if a source is reliable.
“Most of the media is reputable and is trying to disseminate authentic information,” said Arenberg. “Some media is not doing that, and it is a problem. That is one of the reasons trust is low.”
Authenticity can mean different things to different people. Matthew Wisla, a senior instructor in the public relations department at The University of Alabama and former vice president of communications for the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said that authenticity in the media is a “balance in journalism,” whereas Arenberg said that authenticity is “truth,” and Wilkinson said it is “being honest about what you are doing and not misrepresenting oneself.”
Negative conversations also contribute to an “overhang of skepticism” about media, said Wisla. Today the public desires and deserves both honesty and integrity. However, Wilkinson said that distrust in the media only makes her job more difficult.
“People and businesses are less likely to want to talk to you as a journalist. There’s always a lot of questions and nervousness,” said Wilkinson. “I know that there is more apprehension toward speaking out.”
Credibility in today’s world
Because trust in media is considerably low, public relations professionals must bridge the gap by communicating effectively and authentically with target audiences. Building credibility is not a simple task, so professionals should be consistent and transparent to maintain relationships.
Arenberg said that being “truthful and authentic” comes with public relations professionals understanding the definition of newsworthiness. News media editors and writers decide which stories to tell depending on how well each story fits into that criteria. Positive media relations is a crucial asset that public relations professionals can obtain if they understand how to deliver newsworthy stories.
Even with the growing distrust in the media, Wisla said that employing consistent messaging, utilizing multiple channels, and staying relevant to target audiences can build a credible brand reputation for the PR professional’s client organization. Distrust in the media forces public relations professionals to think more strategically about the channels they utilize.
Large traditional media outlets are more segmented and opinionated, allowing viewers to choose which outlet caters to their interests, said Wisla. Though the segmented outlets can cause polarization, they also allow public relations professionals to utilize specific outlets as channels to their target audiences or all of the outlets to get information out in different ways, he noted.
Earned media allows organizations to build positive and credible brand reputations. However, without the public’s trust, earned media coverage means nothing. Restoring trust in the media is essential but also necessary for the public that yearns for the truth.
“There isn’t a magical solution,” said Arenberg. “Reputation is everything. It translates into good business, and it’s the same with PR practitioners who represent clients and brands.”
Public relations professionals must tailor content specifically to reach target audiences instead of just relying on the reputation of traditional media.
According to Arenberg, demographically diversifying the media will increase trust as the media will reflect members of sub-communities. Serving an audience means telling impactful stories in engaging ways but also increasing brand credibility and establishing a trustworthy relationship between the news consumer and client. Transparently delivering truthful content to journalists will only grow this relationship, he said.
From a journalist’s perspective, Wilkinson emphasized the importance of “making sure that everything you say is accurate and true.” Starting conversations about the behind-the-scenes job of a journalist that includes fact-checking, interviewing experts, and in-depth research would help to alleviate distrust, according to Wilkinson.
While Wisla believes it is important for public relations professionals to reestablish trust in the media, he emphasized, “it is not any more of our job than anyone else’s in a democracy or the community.” However, Wisla added that rebuilding trust in media can create a “more receptive audience.”
Reestablishing trust in media is necessary not only for public relations professionals but also for the nationwide public that relies on media to disseminate credible and authentic information. PR professionals can do their part by supplying the media with stories and information that both create a positive brand reputation for their clients and supply the media with substantive and newsworthy information. Although there is no “magical” or “overnight” solution, there are steps that the media and public relations professionals can take to restore a trustworthy news environment.