What's at Stake for Consumers in Today's News Trust Gap?

How Media Overload Can Complicate Trust Issues

By Published on .

Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro
Overheard this conversation the other day while waiting to get coffee.

Woman #1 (in her mid-30's) asks Woman #2 (mid-20's): "What's the difference between a journalist, an expert and a blogger?" Woman #2 answers, "Not much, except bloggers know how to make money from their work."

That exchange pretty much sums up the confusion for "Judy Consumer," who can't tell the difference between credible journalists, entertaining bloggers (who, by the way, don't often make money blogging) and self-proclaimed experts who render judgment on virtually every aspect of her life. While she may enjoy the dizzying array of news options, how is she to tell credible journalists from crack pots?

So it's no surprise that The Pew Institute%u2019s recent study assessing the public's confidence in the press reported a "drop like a rock" decline in the trust people have in the news they see. In 1985, most people (55%) had confidence in the news they saw. Today, less than a 1/3 (29%) think "journalists" get their facts right.

No doubt this low confidence number is reflective of the confusing plethora of new voices rather than of the real hard work most reporters do to ensure accuracy. But the result of this explosion of news options for Judy Consumer is painfully clear -- Judy Consumer is left with three significant "trust gaps":

  • How does Judy Consumer assess the credentials of "experts" cited in articles? And, concurrently, what tools do journalists have to assess the credibility of "experts," especially in the time-sensitive, deadline-driven news business?
  • How does Judy Consumer know the news she sees globally comes from authentic sources?
  • And the Granddaddy of all questions: How does Judy Consumer rebuild the trust she once had in the news industry?

These tough questions really challenge the industry to come up with new tools so Judy Consumer can make reasonable trust judgment calls of what she sees online. Encouragingly, it is the media industry itself that is charting a way forward.

Trust gap #1: How does Judy Consumer assess the credentials of information from "experts"?
The Pew Institute's research is a wake-up call to the near total collapse of trust in today's digital info/news-saturated generation. To help solve the problem, NewsCertified Exchange (NCE), a young company led by CNN pioneer Kathryn McManus (she launched CNN Japan, the first country-specific channel) has worked with thought leaders from hundreds of prestigious organizations to build a database of pre-vetted, certified experts for journalists to tap into and for Judy Consumer to refer to. Each expert in the NewsCertified Exchange goes through a rigorous set of verification processes including identity verification from Idology, verification of the expert's category/ industry credentials and vetting that the expert is media ready.

NCE has people such as Mike Chinoy, Rusty Dornin, Judy Fortin, Kelli Arena and Guy Garcia in its ranks. It has assembled a who's who of media heavyweights for its editorial board like Mia Haugen, managing editor at Forbes; Louis Libin, former CTO of NBC; Michael Friedman, executive director, GW Global Media Institute; Marcel Pacatte, Medill School of Journalism; and Steven Springer, managing editor, Voice of America.

All this focus on credibility has quickly earned the trust of journalists from virtually every news outlet: NBC, WSJ, CNN, The Economist, NPR, Telemundo, CNBC, Fox News, AOL, and ABC, etc., because the mission is clear. Kathryn McManus, CEO and founder, explains, "NewsCertified provides the foundation for the systems and standards that will help shape digital expert credentials for the media industry, for the experts in diverse industries and most importantly for consumers. The trustworthy creation of news must match the tremendous distribution opportunity that the Internet affords us all."

Trust gap #2: How does Judy Consumer know the news she sees globally comes from authentic sources?
This is a two-part problem. First, when Judy Consumer sees a story retweeted lots of times, especially about a remote place where the press may not have easy access, she assumes that a tonnage of consistent "information" means it's true. Or, secondly, when Judy Consumer sees a story about a remote village, she assumes that the information is actually based on authentic "feet on the street" account of the event. Unfortunately for her (and us), she would often be wrong on both counts. But two interesting companies are tackling the problem from different, yet synergistic, angles.

Let's first look at the problem of "crowdsourced trust credentials," where if we see something tweeted enough times we assume it to be true. That's a dangerous practice as Jonathan Gosier (TED Fellow) learned when, as the director and system architect of SwiftRiver at Ushahidi; he was trying to sort through all the incoming data during the Haiti disaster. In a terrific article entitled, "Curators of the real-time web," he explains: "Information wants to flow ...freely and torrentially. With all these channels of communication comes a deluge of overwhelming retweets, cross-chatter, and inaccuracies. How do you distinguish signal from noise without getting overwhelmed? Can we somewhat automate the process of filtering content ... without sacrificing accuracy and relevance? These are the exact questions I attempted to answer during the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. ... We're working on an open-source software platform that helps journalists and emergency response organizations sift through real-time information quickly, without sacrificing accuracy ... The approach SwiftRiver takes is to combine crowd sourced interaction with algorithms that weight, parse, and sort incoming content..."

This sophisticated new approach gives us the best of both worlds -- the ability to leverage the immediacy/proximity that crowdsourcing allows with the added benefit of trust.

Now onto the assumption that stories represent accurate and comprehensive local accounts of events. First, it is quite an eye opener to realize that a big chunk of the planet has no direct coverage:

  • There are 237 countries/territories in the world. Yet, the four largest newsgathering and distribution organizations, which account for 90% of all news distribution, leave 116 countries either undercovered or ignored based on research from HUM News (Source: geographic coverage of AP, Thomson-Reuters, Bloomberg News, Dow Jones). This means that two-thirds of the world's population is without an authentic voice in the world's media.
  • Nearly half of the world's population (3+ billion people) is under the age of 25 and over 85% of this group lives in developing countries (World Population Foundation, 2008). This group also goes largely uncovered.
  • Fast growing populations such as Algeria, Libya and Turkmenistan and fast growing economies in countries such as Angola, Congo (Brazzaville) and Malawi do not have a sustained media channel that can provide local insight either to them, or to the rest of us; other than the occasional "news bytes".
The negative implications of this geographic gap would seem clear, but this leaves one to wonder why then do the four news services largely ignore these markets? The answer is painfully simple. The major news agencies are not there because they can not monetize these countries today. It was Ethan Zuckerman, Geekcorps and Tripod.com founder and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard who first observed in 2003 that the amount of coverage a nation gets correlates highly to the national GDP and imports of goods and services it produces. The equation is easy to figure out -- the higher the GDP, the more coverage a country gets.

Closing this "geographic gap" is no easy undertaking given the financial hurdles and the logistic challenges, but it is the declared mission of a new venture, HUM News (Human Unlimited Media) started by another CNN veteran, Joy DiBenedetto. HUM News is creating a new "news" technology platform and business model that allows for the monetization of a "fifth" news service, devoted especially to these regions. Ms. DiBenedetto's courage and determination reflects HUM News' understanding that as the internet shrinks our world, even seemingly remote regions can, within the blink of a tweet, have a direct and profound impact on the life of Judy Consumer. HUM News is building the technological and trusted journalistic infrastructure that ensures authentic local voices can make their way into the mainstream media conversation.

Trust Gap #3: How does Judy Consumer rebuild the trust she once had in the news industry?
The hardest question I save for last because to answer this question we need to understand that what's at stake here is nothing less than Judy Consumer's ability to protect herself from information and media manipulation. The answer, therefore, lies in providing Judy Consumer with new tools so she can create her own personal Trust Web that lets her make trust decisions about all the information she sees. The companies I mention here, among others, brick by digital brick, are building the foundation of the Trust Web. This is how the industry will rebuild credibility with Judy Consumer. Slowly and over time, because it will take time to build the technology and systems to support this new level of proactive trust.

So while there is no magic answer -- the way forward is clear and finally, we are on our way.

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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