Publishers have always maintained that they’re serving the needs of the public. For news publishers that’s necessarily translated into providing accurate and honest reportage of current events, building up a stock of trust with their audiences that gets converted to loyalty and repeat custom.

The media has always tried to foster that trust by portraying themselves as being on the side of the public (that great amorphous group) by holding the rich and powerful to account, despite the fact that often the publications’ owners are pretty much the definition of ‘rich and powerful’. 

In their attempts to do so, they come up against groups who also like to project an image of sympatico with the general public. When that happens the games of one-downsmanship, in which the publisher strains to be more salt-of-the-earth than the person they’re covering, can be as amusing as it is hypocritical.

In Media and Their Publics, author and media lecturer Michael Higgins writes of just such an encounter between journalist Tim Russert and then-governor of California Arnold Swarzenneger in 2006 over who best represents ‘the public’, saying:

“What emerges is that while the position of Russert as public inquisitor is established by the discursive arrangement of the interview, what often unfolds is a battle between the inquisitor and the inquisitee over ownership of the public voice.”

Sound familiar? It should; it’s the basis of nearly every debate between journalist and politician of the past few years.

Recent events have also made plain what happens when a ‘politician’ can exploit a lack of trust in the mass media for cachet with their supporters. Donald Trump (hereafter referred to as ‘that guy’ for reasons of taste if not SEO) is noticeably anti-media even as he relies on its need for clicks to deliver coverage of his campaign, with journalists treated worse than cattle when covering his rallies, an antagonistic relationship with publishers and a refusal to play ball with established debate tradition.

He’s able to do so in part because trust in the mass media is at an all-time low in America. A Gallup poll found that only four in ten people trust the media: 

“Trust in the media continues to be significantly lower among Americans aged 18 to 49 than among those 50 and older, continuing a pattern evident since 2012. Prior to 2012, these groups’ trust levels were more similar, with a few exceptions between 2005 and 2008.” 

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Image via Gallup 

That’s not so different in the UK, where the percentage of people who reported having trust in the media is at 36 percent – although ‘more informed’ (read ‘richer and better educated’) trusted the media much more.

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Image via Edelman

So for all that publishers talk about being ‘trusted’ sources for news, it’s notable that actual trust in the mass media is astonishingly low. There are a few potential reasons for that, not least of which is the idea that people are more likely to distrust more news sources than they trust and so will overreport their distrust in ‘mass media’.

Additionally, the rise of the internet as a source of news means people are more likely than ever to be exposed to a multitude of news sources, many of which don’t even pretend to hold themselves to the same standard of honesty as legacy publishers

That’s supported by the findings of last year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report, which states:

“Against this background, it is perhaps surprising that our data suggest most people continue to access a relatively small number of trusted sources. Looking at online news in particular, a quarter of our total sample (25%) only consume one source of news in a given week. That figure rises to a third in Japan (36%) and the UK (33%).”

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Image via Reuters Institute

So if trust in overall media is at an all-time low – and can be exploited by jackanapes like ‘that guy’ and other politicians – but trust in individual publications can still be counted on, how do the major news publishers stack up alongside each other for trustworthiness?

pj-15-06-01-millennialmedia14.pngThis excellent study by the Pew Research Centre has a great breakdown of how many people in the US have heard of, trust, or distrust many publishers for news about government and politics: “In total, 14 of the 36 sources are trusted more than distrusted by all three generations – a level of similarity not found in the analysis conducted across political ideologies. Four sources are distrusted more than trusted by all three: The Glenn Beck Program, the Rush Limbaugh Show, the Sean Hannity Show and BuzzFeed.”

Notably, the Guardian is less well-known and less trusted than Al Jazeera America, whose recent closure was frequently chalked up to a lack of trust in a Qatar-owned publisher. For the Guardian, whose entire business model is essentially staked on trust, that could be a worrying statistic.

And it can’t feel great for BuzzFeed, who are making huge steps towards building a credible news operation, to be ranked alongside such quote luminaries unquote as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. 

Last week we ran a piece entitled “Trust is the most important currency”, in which the interviewee Andy Cowles made a clear distinction between trust in BuzzFeed’s news and ‘trust’ in their ability to entertain, which might be better termed a belief they’ll deliver LOLs:

“Clearly they’re working very very hard to establish their trusted news credentials. Even though they’ve got a lot of yellow in their site, I trust the fact that there’s integrity in the work and I trust the fact that it’s going to be entertaining.”

And BuzzFeed’s own Ben Smith has historically been clear that the key to its huge growth hasn’t been its politics coverage, which might explain why it’s so distrusted even among its target audience of Millennials:

“I think anybody who’s worked in the news business, at least since I think the second World War, realizes that entertainment is more popular and more widely consumed than politics. I think probably more people were talking about Marilyn Monroe than about Dwight Eisenhower on any given day in the ’50s, too. I think that’s kind of the banal truth.”

But it’s too easy to say that the lack of trust in BuzzFeed’s news content is as a result of its business model of audience-baiting morsels of content (though it is tempting). The causal relationship isn’t that clear, though, and it doesn’t take into account that the vast majority of BuzzFeed’s content is an equivalent to legacy publishers’ print advertisements. You wouldn’t expect audiences to trust ads, after all.

But that’s the crux of the question in the headline of this article. In this new age of business models based on chasing huge scale online, should publishers even really care if their audiences trust them? From a purely business-focused point of view, the answer should be ‘no’. As evidenced by the Pew Research Centre findings, some of the least-trusted news outlets are the ones doing best financially, and there’s no clear correlation for the others.

From a journalistic and even an ethical standpoint, trust is something publishers should obviously strive for. But whereas in the days of limited competition among print titles having the trust of an audience was an imperative, in the new age of digital publishing it’s more of a nice bonus.

Image courtesy of Lars Plougmann via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license.