The Crisis of Mistrust and the Media Echo Chamber

Businesses, non-governmental organizations, governments and the media around the world all have one thing in common: declining public trust.

“The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, published in January this year, reveals a ‘crisis in trust’ around the world in four key institutions – business, NGO’s, media and government – with media and government distrusted by more people than trusted,” writes Cobus Heyl in FIPP.

Why would a general decline in trust be considered a crisis? Edelman explains in a recent article: “With the fall of trust, the majority of respondents now lack full belief that the overall system is working for them. In this climate, people’s societal and economic concerns, including globalization, the pace of innovation and eroding social values, turn into fears, spurring the rise of populist actions now playing out in several Western-style democracies.”

A similar study back in 2015 showed a growing distrust among American media consumers, and the problem has only gotten worse. The needle is moving from “concern” to “fear” regarding issues like corruption, globalization, eroding social values and the pace of innovation.

“Fueling ‘anxiety and distrust,’ Heyl explains, “is the emergence of a media echo chamber that reinforces personal beliefs and shuts out opposing opinions.”

All it takes is 10 minutes on any social media or news site to see this happening in real time. And the fall of the barriers to publishing means that anyone can now position themselves as a media voice.

“For the first time, this means ‘a person like yourself’ is now as credible of a source for information as a technical or academic expert… In this new world, the hierarchy of traditional sources have been upended,” the Edelman report notes.

Is there a way out?

The rise of partisan news has had a huge part to play in this crisis, according to John Avlon, editor-in-chief for The Daily Beast.

“[T]rust in media has been on the decline for decades – and not coincidentally this decline has coincided with the rise of partisan news. Fueled by the fragmentation of the media and the innovations of the Internet, it has allowed citizens to self-segregate into separate political realities. The result is a Tower of Babel in the civic square, which undercuts the concept of objective facts and the assumption of goodwill between fellow citizens.”

Avlon, like many others in the news business, feels that it’s imperative for journalists and the organizations that support them to push back against the prevailing partisanship.

As Heyl paraphrases it, “They need to get out of their own echo chambers or filter bubbles, where opinions are formed and enhanced by like-minded peers.”

“To that end, I believe news needs to do two things right now: call bulls**t and make important stories interesting,” Avlon asserts. “We need to fearlessly assert the idea perhaps best articulated by U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.’”

Where magazine media can offer hope

Magazine news media has an edge of trust that could provide a blueprint for a way out of the crisis. A recent study commissioned by Time Inc. shows that magazine content, in particular, is more trusted that other news (this goes for magazine ads as well, an interesting point). If magazines have been able to build and keep a higher level of trust, it’s worth emulating.

It starts with investing in the kind of content that is thoughtful, well researched and created by serious journalists who are more concerned with the message that the media. It continues with a publishing mandate that is more concerned with offering its advertisers an educated and informed audience than a mass of eyeballs. And it ends with consumers learning to better discern the motivations behind the media.

A free and unfettered press is crucial to the survival of democracy. Consumer trust underpins it all.