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In (Fill in the Blank) We Trust

Legacy journalism brands are betting consumers will keep the faith. Will they?

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“If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” the famously intimidating editors of the old City News Bureau in Chicago once barked at rookie reporters and future boldface names like Kurt Vonnegut, Seymour Hersh and Mike Royko.

But today, it’s not just mom’s love that news organizations must verify. In their quest to be the most authoritative, most trusted sources of information, they must contend with a fire hose of real and imagined news, analysis, debate, speculation, rumor, opinion and downright fallacy gushing from all manner of sources—veteran journalists, self-styled investigators, guerrilla marketers, politicized talking heads, bloggers, flacks and Hollywood celebrities. All are disseminating content and jockeying for attention by way of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, news sites, blogs, hyperlocal online destinations and what have come to be known as “legacy media,” those newspapers and broadcast outlets that were once the unchallenged arbiters of what was or was not news.

To the ever-growing list of things news organizations can no longer take for granted (predictable revenue gains, a stable and mass audience, a monopoly on news coverage), the public’s trust has arguably become their most valuable asset of all. Yet as mainstream media downsize their newsrooms and ambitions, and as their audiences divide and disperse according to increasingly polarized political views, they are also forced to confront a potentially fatal loss of consumer confidence.

Dissatisfaction with the press is at an all-time high (or low, as it were). Gallup has been polling Americans on their opinions of news gatherers for several decades, and current trends do not bode well for the industry. In 1985, 34 percent of the public said the media report stories that “are often inaccurate.” By July 2011, that figure had spiked to 66 percent. By large margins, Americans now say the media “tend to favor one side” of a controversy (77 percent) and are “often influenced by powerful people and organizations” (80 percent).

When Public Policy Polling, a Democratic research firm, asked voters earlier this year whether they trusted or distrusted TV news outlets, the results read like a nail-bitingly close election. Barely winning the trust vote were NBC (44 percent trusting/38 percent distrusting), CNN (43 percent/39 percent) and Fox News (45 percent/42 percent). Losers were CBS (40 percent/42 percent), ABC (37 percent/40 percent) and MSNBC (38 percent/43 percent).

It isn’t just Big Media that are seeing trust and respect erode. The 2012 State of the News Media report from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found an alarming ambivalence on the part of consumers about their hometown dailies as well. If their local paper were to fold, 39 percent say it would have no impact on them personally while 30 percent indicate it would have only a minor impact. Pew finds that young adults (those aged 18-29) are “especially unconcerned,” with 75 percent saying they could get all the local information they needed even if their local paper closed shop.

Distrust of legacy media’s editorial content is beginning to translate into distrust of its advertising. Last month, Nielsen issued its Global Trust in Advertising report, finding that among 26,000 respondents in 56 countries, ads in mainstream media are trusted by less than half. (Still, legacy media performs far better than online video ads or social media ads, with just 36% trusting those, or banner ads, which were distrusted by fully two-thirds of respondents.)

Certainly, some of the wounds suffered by legacy media are self-inflicted. It’s now accepted that they failed to grasp early on the implications the Internet had for their businesses and news operations, first regarding the Web as a sort of promotional outlet for the “real” report in newsprint or on the air. Now, traditional media outlets are tripping over themselves to proclaim they are “digital first”—and making some big mistakes as they race to keep up with the speed of the Web.

Acting on an erroneous report from an obscure Penn State sports fan blog, various news organizations, including CBS Sports, The Huffington Post and the Poynter Institute (home to the hugely popular journalists site MediaWire), all retweeted the “news” that fired coach Joe Paterno had died. The RT-ing on Twitter was furious—that is, until a New York Times reporter contacted the Paterno family and confirmed he was still alive. It was another example of a lesson not learned by too many mainstream media outlets.

Almost exactly a year before prematurely burying Paterno, news heavyweights including the Times, National Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and Reuters incorrectly reported that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had been killed in a shooting rampage in Tucson.

Tellingly, the Associated Press, which has been in the get-it-first game for 167 years, did not jump at either false alarm. Even as erroneous reports of Giffords’ death raced around the world, AP’s deputy West regional editor Josh Hoffner determined that none of the sources could have possibly had firsthand knowledge of her condition. “We’ve learned the hard way that people remember an error a thousand times longer than they remember that you didn’t make an error, or that you were behind someone else [in reporting a story],” says AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll. “I’d rather be behind and right than ahead and wrong. Mistakes have a long half-life, and they are corrosive to what you do.”

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