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People Seek Reliable Information in Troubled Times

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A version of this post previously appeared in EdelmanUK Magazine.

The telling of stories is what media people do, however you earn your income. And as Media Guardian readers know very well, sometimes the story is about the storytellers.

Each year, Edelman asks people all over the world, including the UK, how much they trust institutions, specifically government, business, the media and NGOs. We call it the Edelman TRUST BAROMETER and, in effect, it tells a story of how we all see the world.

This year, the story had a powerful line.

What really surprised us was what the Trust Barometer told us about the leap in trust of the media among the upper section of society (we call them Informed Publics but you might call them Guardian and Times readers, or Radio 4 listeners).

Basically they were saying that in the last 12 months their trust in the media – particularly the traditional media – had increased by a fantastic amount. We calculate it on a 1 to 9 scale, but in shorthand terms the level of trust had gone up from 38 percent last year to 52 percent this year.

That meant that since 2011 – the nadir of trust in the British media at the height of the phone hacking scandal – the trust score had gone up by a full 30 percentage points from 22 percent.

And they were telling us that what they were investing most faith in was what we call “traditional media” – so let’s say brands that pre-date the internet – at a really high 70 percent.

Now there are two things to note about this, I think.

The first is that it comes at a time when that same sector of the population is expressing an all-round improvement in trust levels – and for trust I think we can substitute the idea of contentment or satisfaction – and the second is that it came in a year that was, by any measure, newsy. There were a lot of scary stories around in 2015 – IS, Ukraine, the refugee crisis, Ebola, a really unpredictable British general election, the threat of terrorism in Europe, and so on.

But it’s also important to remember that there is broad spectrum of trust in the media with some sections of the media scoring higher than others. I will come back to that in a moment.

Because we were so surprised by these numbers, we actually went back to talk to the public to ask why their trust had increased and it confirmed my first point just now: most people (about 8 in 10) said that they were turning to traditional media as a source of reliable information in a troubling period of their lives.

A lot also said that they found social media and newer sources of news less reliable than the sources of news they grew up with – about 6 out of 10.

But obviously, as a former journalist myself, I was interested in whether the effects of phone hacking had worn off. Have the British people forgiven the press for their behaviour?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

Actually only about a third of the people we asked agreed with the idea that the sins of the past were over and forgiven.

So that really brings me back to the final point, which is that within the 70 percent figure I mentioned for trust in the traditional media, there is quite a range of trust. So the BBC and Radio 4 in particular scored the highest marks  along with Sky News and ITN. “Broadsheet” papers also scored highly (It’s important to note that this is among people who said they were regular readers, viewers or listeners of the media sources we asked about). I would call out papers, such as the FT, International New York Times, The Times and Sunday Times and the Guardian. Of course, there were other titles, some press, some broadcast, some digital (no names, no pack drill here, I think) where trust levels were in the 30s and 40s. Which is what you would expect. Not everyone reads or watches to get trusted information; sometimes they just want to be entertained – and there is nothing wrong with that.

Are there lessons from this? It would seem people who are by definition better informed want to be sure they are reliably informed, and the more threatening the world around them becomes, the more they feel that. That should be a good thing for the high-end media brand.

Those who favour “traditional” media are going to be older and you might think that as time wears on the younger generations will prefer the media – the social, the digital-native media – that they grew up with. But some aspects of human life are ineffable and the feeling that you need to be well-informed about the perils of the world is surely one of them.

On that basis, the yearning and need for reliability is surely not a trend, but imprinted in us. By the same token, it must be a prerequisite therefore for those who earn their living from their journalistic efforts to communicate with accuracy and impartiality.

Ed Williams is CEO of Edelman UK.

For the full UK findings for the Trust Barometer 2016, please click here. The survey is Edelman’s 16th annual trust and credibility survey. It measures trust across a number of institutions, sectors and geographies. The 2016 Edelman TRUST BAROMETER surveyed more than 33,000 respondents across 28 countries.

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