Trust In Establishment Media Makes a Comeback

The media establishment has been taking a beating over the past several years. They are an easy target for a full range of political, activist and advocacy groups. And at times, certain members of the media don’t help their cause. However, I always explain to my clients that most reporters, editors and producers are just trying to get it right. As a former reporter, I believe the media plays an essential role in our society, and a damaged “Fourth Estate” is bad for everyone.

Fortunately, it looks like there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. A recent report by the Pew Research Center suggests Americans are once again regaining trust in traditional media outlets.

The Loss of Trust: How Did We Get Here?

It would be easy to assume that the loss of trust in traditional media occurred over the last four to five years. And while there was a brief trust dip during the 2016 election season, positive numbers quickly bounced back. Edelman’s annual survey shows that trust in the media rose year over year until 2020. Other organizations like Gallup show similar results.

Then came the pandemic, and with it, a trust nosedive for traditional media. In January of this year, a reporter for Axios noted, “For the first time ever, fewer than half of all Americans have trust in traditional media.” The pandemic was a significant period of fear and searching for answers. As I have mentioned before, fear has a funny way of negatively affecting decision-making for humans. For example, as a form of protection, many people tend to narrow their circle of trust. This reality, combined with the fact that no one knew who to believe during the pandemic, reinforced the idea that the media was not to be trusted.

The Media Makes a Comeback

By March of this year, there was a glimmer of hope for traditional media. Pew put out a new survey and found that “more Americans now see the media’s influence growing compared with a year ago.” Interestingly, this is a bipartisan view. Pew notes that “this shift in views of the media’s influence in the country occurred among members of both political parties – and in the same direction.” Another notable stat is that Black and Hispanic Americans are the most optimistic supporters of traditional media.

The obvious question for the media is why? What caused this attitudinal change? I would argue that the positive change results from actions the media took and a break from controversial events.

Journalist Soul Searching

It only makes sense that leaders do a little soul searching when an industry sustains a significant hit in trust. Traditional journalists are actively doing so, especially when it comes to the importance of remaining a neutral party on issues of the day.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism put out a report at the beginning of this year predicting trends for 2021. One of the key findings in the wide-ranging survey of journalists was that impartiality in reporting matters more now than ever. Nearly 90% of the news executives polled agree with this point.

However, there is also a nuanced challenge for reporters. As the survey notes, “Does a traditional approach of dispassionately airing all the arguments and leaving it up to people to make their own judgment still stand? Or does this risk giving undue weight to extreme positions and help amplify lies? Should journalists take a clear moral stand in their reporting of, for example, the killing of George Floyd, the ‘climate emergency,’ or the attempted subverting of a presidential election?”

Time Heals Many Wounds

Though a cliché in many ways, time plays a factor in healing old wounds. As some psychologists suggest, memories simply fade away when not accessed. This is especially true for negative memories that none of us are keen to remember. As a result, the distrust that occurred during the pandemic fades as we begin to think less about the dark days of the global health crisis. We reopen that circle of trust and once again turn toward traditional media sources for relevant news.

Four Tips to Reach Traditional Media

This renewed trust should also encourage public relations professionals to place a stronger focus on media relations outreach. When doing so, don’t forget:

  1. The pitch still has to matter. If your pitch is too long, isn’t aligned with the outlet’s focus or doesn’t meet a need for the reporter, it’s not likely you will succeed. Remember that fewer reporters are being asked to do far more today, so quickly get to the point and be thoughtful in a few words.

  2. Make this a partnership. Reporters are people too. Help them out with data, information and contacts even when you are not trying to land a story for your organization. This won’t be forgotten and will form an honest relationship benefitting everyone involved.

  3. Pay attention to newsroom timelines. When do they publish or post? What time is the outlet’s regular internal coverage meeting? Who is the decision-maker at the news outlet? Syncing up your pitches with this knowledge ensures the right person hears your pitch at the right time.

  4. Follow up, follow up, follow up. Again, reporters are people just like you and me. That means they also receive a million emails a day. Don’t be scared to follow up multiple times. They may be short on time, and the squeaky wheel still gets the grease.
Andy Hallmark
CEO, Clear Strategy Partners
Working with a great group of communications professionals to translate challenging topics for our clients’ audiences. We get to figure out this puzzle every day and it is rewarding to be part of a firm that cares about finding communications solutions that are honest and compelling.