Trusted Sources in a "Fake News" World
When Ted Koppel spoke yesterday about his interview with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump just before Trump accepted the nomination, the future president and Twitter enthusiast had a clear message to the veteran journalist:
I don’t need you folks any more.
Nobody in recent memory has a more highly-developed sense of public confidence than the freshly-minted Republican nominee for president. Still, as I sat down with Donald Trump late last week, I couldn't help but wonder: "Let me ask you a question I've wanted to ask you for months now: I have a sense that back on June 16th , what Donald Trump was thinking was, 'You know something?
Starting a war with the press is a tactic. It is not an impulse. What someone says to (and about) the press is usually predicated on calculated self-interest.
But there are times that calculation is dead wrong…with devastating consequences.
Ted Koppel spoke for 90 minutes on Monday as part of the Lesher Center for the Arts Newsmakers Series. The contributions of the Emmy and Peabody Award winner are significant, drawing a capacity audience in both the main and overflow auditoriums. By its questions, the crowd had a keen interest in Koppel’s take on the new U.S. administration, and the state of journalism.
My interests were much more specific. “Fake News” has become part of our consciousness, though we can’t always agree on what it means. Is it misinformation that seeps into the media landscape, either willfully or negligently? Is it cognitive dissonance, where fact is ignored when it conflicts with a consumer’s perspective, or comes from a “disreputable” source?
I asked Koppel the only direct audience question he took all evening, asking whether “fake news” was a product of misinformation or consumer disbelief, and if one was more dangerous than the other. His response was clearly drawn from 5 decades of experience covering monumental events and personalities worldwide.
Koppel described the process of putting together one episode of Nightline, the ABC show he hosted for 25 years that still defines his career. From his arrival at 11AM through his departure at 12:30AM on a typical day, the team of 40 producers, writers, and editors collaborated to deliver context to the most important news of the day. “None of it was done on the basis of what one person would say,” Koppel stated. “When we made a mistake, I insisted on putting it on the top of the [next] broadcast, rather than burying it at the end of the broadcast, because I realized that the most valuable thing I had was the confidence of the viewing public.”
That confidence has slowly eroded for those who have succeeded him in journalism. It has been replaced by “information bubbles” that reflect our individual world views.
“We all choose the bubble that is in tune with our biases. That is a terribly dangerous state of affairs for a democracy. Ultimately, everybody, whether it is the people who are in power, running the country, the people in Congress, or those of us who are citizens of the country, ultimately, there are certain issues in which we have to be able to turn to trusted, objective processors of information.”
“We are going to regret the fact that we don’t have those kind of intermediaries anymore, because…there are times you need to be able to believe people. These days…we take refuge in the notion that nobody is credible. It is all fake news.”
But does anyone really agree with Koppel’s premise? Bubbles are comfortable. In a troubled and troubling world, bubbles give us a place where we don’t have to think. And inside the bubble, there is no such thing as “fake news”. There is just, news. After all, the Washington Post proved George Costanza was right after all with the following article:
Belief is one of the most powerful forces in the world.
The current state of play in terms of trust and belief is not promising for traditional sources of information. The 2017 Edelman TRUST BAROMETER suggests that a person’s peers are as trusted as a technical or academic expert. Media trust levels are at an all-time low. Trust in business and its leaders is fading.
All of this has created a tendency for leaders in politics and business to buck the trend by telling consumers that the establishment has left them behind. The solution is me, or my company, or my brand.
The near-term benefits are real. President Trump is the obvious political example. Pick a Silicon Valley disruptor, and you can see the same message. Take Uber, which sold users on the story that the taxi monopoly did not serve their interest.
But, examine the backlash to the Trump Administration after inauguration, or to Uber’s political brinksmanship and aggressive legal interpretations as it has become the establishment in many of the cities it serves. Successfully employing the strategy of building trust at the expense of the media or other institutions in the near-term can pose dramatic issues down the road. That is particularly true when an entity becomes the very establishment it attacked.
Which brings us back to Ted Koppel, and his belief that all parties in a democracy should want an independent arbiter of truth.
Do leaders really want a trusted source who will vouch for their agenda and character? So much so that if it doesn’t exist, leaders often create one to fill the vacuum (or at least, the appearance of one). RT is a perfect example.
It cost $30 million dollars for Vladimir Putin to create the RT. Its worth to Putin as a propaganda tool infinitely exceeds its cost.
Propaganda aside, it is much easier for a leader to gain the trust of her/his constituency when they have been vetted by a media institution that already has the trust of the same constituency. It works for politicians. It works for business leaders. It works for companies. If you need people to trust you, there is no more sustainable way to achieve that goal than to win the trust of the media they believe.
For consumers, a “trusted, objective processor of information” can have vital importance. Ask yourself what happens when a family member has a grave illness. When vetting the doctor who could save your loved one’s life, would you find someone you trust who can give you a personal recommendation…or settle for a Yelp review? Trust matters. The higher the stakes, the more time an individual takes time to find trusted sources of information.
Because belief is one of the most powerful forces in the world.
As a company, we have no illusions about the current environment for American media and the impact that has on message delivery for our clients. There are times when the size of the constituency to be won demands an aggressive approach against an establishment opponent.
But, we are people who are looking to build clients that will become institutions. Additionally, we are citizens who want our country to be strong. “Trusted, objective processors of information”, in Ted Koppel’s words, can be benefits to both our objectives if approached with the right strategies.
We need these trusted sources. We welcome these trusted sources.
Trusted sources make us all better.