Who Do You Trust?

I know we’re all supposed to be multi-media journalists but I kind of like to think of myself as a Hybrid Journalist. I run on ink and electricity. I am one of those rare persons who went from print to television – a newspaper reporter who became a television reporter even though newspapers were doing ‘real journalism’ and television was doing ‘infotainment.’ But then I got my first lesson in how the two media are perceived by the general public. It came when I went to the courthouse. As a newspaper reporter, they all politely said, “Oh, hello, Michael.” As a television reporter, they would say, “Oh, hello, Michael, how can I help you. What do you need? What are you working on?” The difference was striking.

Television was clearly more powerful, at least in terms of ‘everyday people.’ This all came back to me as I read through the latest Harris Interactive Survey of people’s attitude toward different media. The survey shows that local television is not only the primary source of news for most people. It is the most trusted source of news for most people. That has to be somewhat disheartening for my newspaper brethren who have always believed, and many of whom still seem to believe, they are the real journalists while television reporters are simply entertainers.

According to the Harris poll, nearly three quarters of Americans (73%) say they trust their local TV news “will get you the news fairly and accurately” either to some extent (51%) or a lot (22%). Before you TV journalists go bragging about it though, keep in mind that’s only four points ahead of radio, Internet news and information sites, and local newspapers, all of which were voted trustworthy by a little more than two thirds (69%) of the public. Low man on the totem poll were national newspapers (60%), then network TV news (61%) and cable TV news (64%).

Where it gets interesting is when you look at the degree of trust. Local TV news scored significantly higher than any other news source when asked if they had “a lot of trust” versus “some trust.” A fifth (22%) said they had “a lot of trust.” That’s four points ahead (18%) of the next highest group — local newspapers. Radio and Internet sites scored lowest (14%) on this point, only slightly behind cable and network TV news (15%) and national newspapers (16%).

Where it gets even more interesting though is when you perform a simple arithmetic function. What you do is you subtract the percentage of people who don’t trust a particular media outlet from the percentage who do trust that particular media outlet. When you do that, the story for local television news gets even better. Remember that three quarters (73%) who trust local TV news? From that subtract the roughly one quarter (23%) who don’t trust it, and you get a net of half of the American public (50%) who are more positive than negative about local TV news.

National newspapers and Network TV had the lowest positive ranking, with only a quarter (26%) of the American public ending up on the plus side for them. Cable TV news was actually higher with a third (34%) ending up in the positive column. Local newspapers (at 42%) were eight points behind local television. Despite the low scoring in terms of “a lot of trust,” both radio and the Internet netted out a better overall score with radio the second highest net positive (44%) and the Internet the third highest (43%).

Interestingly, people who identify themselves as Democrats trust the media much more than people who say they are Republican or Independents. I say “interestingly” because the difference is not just a couple of points, but double digit differences. For example, four out of five Democrats (83%) trust their local TV news operation. That’s well ahead of Republicans (73%) and Independents (72%). The political differences are even more dramatic when you look at the national media. Less than half of the Republicans (47% and 46%) trust Network TV news or National newspapers while more than three quarters (79% and 77%) of Democrats trust them. Independents were in the middle with just under two thirds (61% and 60%) saying they trust Network TV news or National newspapers.

The report also breaks out the numbers in terms of so-called Echo Boomers (18 – 35), Gen X (36 – 47), Baby Boomers (48 – 66), and (you have to love this term), Matures (67+). I’ve already thrown tons of numbers at you. So I won’t add to the mathematical mayhem with more of that. Suffice it to say that the generational breakout is pretty well what you would expect.

There are two things in the report that you might not expect though. Going back to the political breakout, the report says only six percent of Independents say they trust the Internet to get them the news “fairly and accurately.” Two thirds (66%) of Republicans and three quarters (78%) of Democrats trust the Internet. I know many news people are math impaired, so let me state it another. Eleven to thirteen times as many Republicans and Democrats trust the Internet as Independents. In fact, nowhere in the charts did I find another number that low for anything – making me wonder if the Harris people made a mistake.

(This is also the point in the article that I should add a disclaimer about the Harris survey. Because it is a self-selected panel of willing participants and not a random survey, it is not considered statistically scientific. Even Harris itself admits it, when it says, “no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.”)

The other unexpected thing in the report comes when you look at the national media included in the survey. The report asks consumers about their trust in NBC, ABC, CNN, PBS, NPR, Fox News, Associated Press, Reuters, MSNBC, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, Time, New York Times, Washington Post, Yahoo News, The Daily Beast, and the Huffington Post.

For the record, ABC and NBC scored the highest (63%) in terms of percentage of people who trust them, ahead of CNN (61%), the Associated Press and PBS (59%) and Fox News (54%). Yahoo News scored the highest (53%) in term of Internet sites while the Huffington Post scored the lowest (33%) not just in Internet sites but out of all the news organizations cited.

Which brings me back to my point about the unexpected thing in the report. Look at the list again. Read it aloud. Now, tell me – what’s missing. I’ll be curious how many of you see it. Okay, if you didn’t see it, here it is. CBS is not on the list. Now, there may be others that you would think should be included on the list. But one of the big three? The home of 60 Minutes, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite? The network which, according to their promotion, “created original reporting”? Not included?

So, despite all the (often times legitimate) questions and concerns raised by critics, local television news remains the most trusted source of news. Researchers have found that people will criticize the amorphous “general public” as being uninformed or misinformed but believe steadfastly it doesn’t apply to them. In the same way, they will criticize the “news media” in general as being biased and unfair, but still believe their local media is not. Now, it’s up to the broadcast journalists to prove them right.

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Michael Castengera

Michael Castengera

Michael Castengera is a newspaper reporter, turned television reporter, turned news manager, turned news consultant, turned university teacher.

He started out as a newspaper reporter, first while living in Australia, and then for newspapers in Orlando and Jacksonville, Florida.  He made the cross over into television reporting in Jacksonville, going to work for Post-Newsweek’s WJXT.

Since then he has worked in virtually every position in the newsroom, including reporter, assignment editor, producer, managing editor, assistant news director, news director and, finally, station manager.  His career has covered markets large (Miami and St. Louis), medium (Jacksonville, Fort Myers, Oklahoma City and Lexington, Kentucky) and small (Beaumont and Corpus Christi, Texas).

He cites as career highlights, investigative reports into police abuse, tornado coverage in Oklahoma and riots in Miami, being at the birth of the first 24-hour news station (KMOV) and heading up what was, at the time, the highest rated news affiliate in the country (WINK).

It was while he was station manager and news director in Fort Myers that he made the cross over into consulting, working with Audience, Research and Development of Dallas as a senior strategist with a variety of stations around the country.

He now is a senior lecturer in Digital and Broadcast Journalism at the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia.  In addition to that, he runs his own consulting company, Media Strategies and Tactics.  Clients include media groups in America as well as in India.