Jack’s thoughts on making sense of what is going on behind the headlines.

First things first: Do you trust the news to be truthful? That question came up a lot last week, as online companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter sent executives to answer questions on Capitol Hill about political censorship and foreign interference in U.S elections. These new digital behemoths are now where many Americans get their news, and in large part they have replaced local newspapers. But a new study says that consumers of news perceive the trustworthiness of various news sources very differently. And while this study was just of Americans, the way they discerned differences in different media has profound implications — and encouraging news — for anyone who wants to communicate with the public.
Politicians have always criticized the media to varying degrees, though perhaps not to the extent that we see currently. But these days there are a lot of reasons, not all of them substantiated, to distrust the news you get online. The use of fake news sites posing as legitimate online news publications, once a tool of foreign intelligence services to manipulate public opinion, is now working its way into domestic public affairs, as we discovered recently in our work for a transportation client. It works like this: Chatter on the extreme fringes pushes non-factual allegations as fact, and this gets repackaged on fake news sites that look legitimate. These “news site” articles then get shared online. That’s how a politically motivated tall tale takes root in your social media timeline, where it can look as real as a family picture.

Fair or not, the platforms where we find online news, whether it’s by filling in a search field or simply by scrolling through a social media feed, have to adapt to a reality in which they are effectively news sources. Whether it’s because of foreign manipulation or algorithms that automatically boost more traditionally trusted news sources, the result is that some people perceive a bias in the news presented in a Google search or on social media.

To be fair, the Big Three, as Facebook, Google, and Twitter are popularly called, have made positive changes since they last sent executives to testify before Congress. Since that round of testimony, popular support for Congress doing more to regulate technology companies rose from 40 percent to 55 percent. That’s a huge shift in public opinion in a short amount of time, which could be why this week those same tech companies are sending more senior executives to Capitol Hill, indicating the seriousness with which they take these concerns. They are being proactive about working with the intelligence community to deal with election interference (this time from Iran). And they are being stricter about kicking high-profile users off their platforms for violating their terms of service that ban hate speech, though this last response has given rise to concerns about censorship.

These concerns have prompted a response from the White House, which is “taking a look” at regulating Google, and from Capitol Hill, where Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Google’s dominance is anti-competitive. Other countries are taking different routes in regulating online providers. China, of course, blocks Google and Facebook entirely. The European Union, which has strict rules about online privacy and the use of data, is contemplating stiff fines on social media platforms that do not immediately remove online terrorist propaganda.
Where this leaves Americans is in a media environment in which online news is suspect and national news is politically polarized, and people don’t know what information they can trust. In Western Europe, trust is fragmented along populist (as opposed to left-right political divisions) and geographic lines. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, trust in media is higher in northern European countries where populism isn’t as widespread. In southern European countries where populism in high, trust in media is low.

For anyone in a business that requires communicating with the public, whether in advertising, public relations, or in times of crisis, this poses an enormous challenge. Certainly the basics about our own conduct have not changed — address the public’s concerns, tell the truth, and be quick about it. But if you communicate the perfect message on a distrusted medium, have you really communicated?

This is why I am so encouraged by the 2018 Poynter Media Trust Survey. I want to draw your attention to two particularly positive findings that we should all let guide us. First, U.S. news consumers show an extraordinary amount of trust in local television news and local newspapers. In fact, 76 percent of Americans have at least a “fair amount” or “great deal” of trust in local TV, and 73 percent do so for their local newspapers. For national newspapers such as the New York Times or the Washington Post, that figure is only 59 percent. For national television, it’s 55 percent. For online news, 47 percent. The graph below, showing the average media trust by outlet type, illustrates the stark contrast that holds true across partisan divisions. Apparently trust in local news is the one place Americans come together.

We see a somewhat of a parallel in Western Europe in the Pew Research Center poll, which found that where trust in media was high, it was also concentrated on public television stations such as the BBC in the UK and ARD, a consortium of regional public broadcasting stations, in Germany. In these countries, where commercial use of personal data is strictly regulated and suspicion of online news platforms is official policy, news consumers are still sticking with the old standbys.

Second, trust in the news media is on the rise, at least in the U.S. According to the Poynter study, “We find that levels of trust and confidence in the mass media are actually somewhat higher than in recent years. Continuing a trend observed in our 2017 study, public trust and confidence in the media overall is higher than it has been since the post-9/11 period.” And though this upward trend, as the blue line below shows, is largely driven by Democrats, Republicans are also showing an increasing trust in the press since the 2016 elections.

Harnessing the power of the public in today’s uncertain times requires businesses, just like politicians, to be able to communicate clearly and effectively. Trust is earned, to be sure, but without a baseline of trust in the media itself, effective communication is made more difficult because you never get the chance to earn trust. What this data tells me is that local newspapers and local television are trusted venues for your communication efforts, but it goes deeper than that. The upward trend in trust tells me that people are seeking out outlets they can trust. It’s not just that we have something to say. It’s that people want to listen, which makes communication still possible.