Thought Leadership

3 Ways Communicators Can Help Restore Public Trust in the Media

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fake news

The concern over “fake news” isn’t just a problem for the journalism industry — it’s an issue for all professional communicators.

In a March Weber Shandwick study on the relationship between American consumers and news producers, 74 percent of respondents said they struggle with discerning what’s actual fact-based reporting and what isn’t. Though this seems to pinpoint an overall media literacy crisis for our country, there’s an even scarier implication in this statistic: average people appear to be highly skeptical, in general, of communications sources. If you can’t distinguish between a clearly factual article and a clearly opinion-based or fabricated article, then it means you probably assume all of it is fake or at least driven by political motives.

Figuring out how to restore public trust in the media was a recurring theme at a recent New York panel titled “Defining Journalism in a Post-Truth Era,” featuring TIME reporter Charlotte Alter, Forbes editor Helen A.S. Popkin, Newsday reporter Mark Chiusano and MediaPost writer Philip Rosenstein.

These are three, key ways that PR agencies and communications professionals can help with the cause:

1. Be specific with sourcing and survey data.

A major reason people distrust journalism outlets is their tendency to use anonymous sources in hard news pieces, an unfortunate but necessary part of dealing with powerful individuals who may be able to share sensitive or private information on the record but can’t give their name, the panelists said. Still, Chiusano believes reporters should seek out new ways to deliver newsworthy scoops without having to rely on anonymous sourcing, which may help foster trust between the public and the press.

It’s important for professional communicators to be as transparent as possible too. For instance, Alter mentioned that she often distrusts polls from sources who, unlike well-known researchers such as Pew Research Center, aren’t always clear about who conducts their surveys and what the sample size and demographics are.

To combat this skepticism, communicators should make sure they’re upfront in discussing every aspect of how they gathered their data. Who knows — it may help a journalist write a more trustworthy article if he or she is citing a transparent and detail-oriented survey.

2. Work with conservative-leaning publications.

While The New York Times and The Washington Post are reliable members of the mainstream media, their editorial pages tend to have a liberal slant. If you’re a reader who struggles with the difference between editorials and hard news stories, then it can be easy to conflate the lefty bias in opinion pieces on social justice with the objectivity of articles on the economy that may run on the front page of the paper.

Alter feels this confusion can alienate people with right-leaning politics (only 14 percent of Republicans trust mass media, according to a 2016 Gallup survey) who may pick up The New York Times to get their daily dose of current events only to stumble onto a Paul Krugman essay that may condemn their beliefs. This forces people into reading news outlets with far-right agendas like Breitbart, where dogmatic conservatism penetrates both their editorial pieces and regular news coverage.

Communications professionals can help steer people away from those publications by pitching to and valuing outlets that are both conservative and reputable such as The Wall Street Journal, said Alter.

3. Use caution when posting news on Facebook.

Though Facebook has recently stepped-up its efforts to promote news literacy, it’s difficult to regulate the flow of misinformation with only a few algorithmic alterations, insists Alter.

“Facebook has to decide whether it’s a tech company or a media company,” she said.

So, if you manage social media for a PR agency, make sure the articles you’re sharing are from reliable sources. Facebook may not be able to stop the spread of fake news just yet, but you certainly are.

About the author

Dean Essner


  • Excellent Piece. Its sad that extreme right leaning fake news serves to muffle quality, albeit slanted, columnists. Your point about appreciating right-leaning media as reliable
    PR tools is excellent. Thanks for your insight.

  • I would add at least two more:
    1) Is not reporting on a story in fact a form of “Fake News?” Editorial decisions about which stories get covered and which do not (ignoring one or “letting it die”) are based on value judgments; they reveal degrees of insulation (echo chambers) between the news industry and news consumers (as was pointed out by the W-S study); and also reflect a stated or unconscious bias. Both political ideologies are guilty of this — often called “spin” — but so are the major news outlets mentioned here and others. You need only flip back and forth between channels or scan the headlines of opposing papers to see evidence of this.
    2) Is it really “fake” news or just “really” different perspectives? (This is not to make excuses for any particular news-maker in the current debate) Absolutely 2 plus 2 equals 4. But aren’t there times when the answer really isn’t black-and-white or truly self-evident? Example: When I was a lad, every school child learned — since the 1930s — that our solar system had nine planets. That “scientific fact” is no longer valid, is it not? Were we all taught an “alternative fact?” Perhaps this is better: A glass contains 50 percent water, the remainder “air.” The glass is both half-full and half-empty. How can both be true? Observers who report either description would be both accurate and capable of demonstrating the factual nature of their reports. Both could consult experts in many fields of study to vouch for their story, and be validated. But a reporter’s perspective flavors much of how she covers a story not to mention how her editorial bosses would edit/tinker with the copy and eventually how the news consumer would receive the news. (And any investigating about how the glass came to be that way is a completely different matter. Just don’t even go there.)

  • Look, I do agree with everything Dean Essner has laid out. Trouble is we have no control (and likely never will have) over how what we give the media ultimately is used. So, What?
    While I don’t sense that Public Relations is being blamed for fake news, although surely many of us are responsible for a lot of it, or failing to say something when we see some. Only the media can restore its own credibility and public trust, if it chooses to or if it even cares. Our forefathers couldn’t figure it out so they simply punted the press onto the rest of us to figure out . . . or not.
    Twenty years ago, when the so called main stream media admitted that it officially allows blurring editorial language with a higher level of emotion and a lower level of objectivity in what would be called news, all forms of media including legacy media jumped aboard.
    This wholesale imprecision is what has led to so much confusion about what is being communicated. The media has developed a Lexicon of Imprecision; negative, emotional, inflammatory words and phrases that grab attention but never get to the truth. This could be fixed tomorrow morning if editors simply banned the use of these negative, emotional and inflammatory words and phrases.
    Take reporters out of the editorial business and get them back to the business of positive, declarative, objective language. The clarity this would generate would be startling. All news stories would be much shorter, maybe even have supportable conclusions, recommendation, advice or answers.
    One thing is obvious from the current reportorial trends, negative, emotional, inflammatory stories lead to or are triggered by negative, emotional, inflammatory questions. These questions by their very nature prevent direct and succinct responses, which then leads to even more inflammatory, negative and emotional follow-up efforts.
    To paraphrase a recently famous American,” The media has brought this on themselves.”
    Current data clearly shows that there is little trust (and even that is declining) in mainstream media and enormous and growing trust in social media. Point is that it’s the media’s responsibility to fix itself. Bottom line? Media have so little respect for Public Relations that any effort on any scale we undertake will be derided, scoffed at and a rehashing of our own mistakes and problems and short comings. Better we put our efforts into making the truth more obvious and leave the justifications of media behavior to the media.

  • Most in today’s news media have little to no interest in INFORMING their audience. It’s almost all advocacy (regardless of ideology or party) mixed with clickbait headlines/tweets. Go to many TV stations’ on-air talent bios, and their motivation for getting into “journalism” [sic] is “helping people” or something similar–nothing about conveying information to their audience. While there are too many PR folks who contribute to this problem, I have to put the burden on the media, who portray themselves as above us mere flacks. The media’s current predicament is self-inflicted. But as long as most remain in denial, the media business will continue–and deserve–its demise.

  • I would also say that as PR professionals we have to help educate or coworkers, supervisors, etc., on the business of news. I hear so many of my colleagues telling me that ____ is news when it fact it’s not. In my experience of training people for media interviews I have found that more than half don’t know the difference in a media story and an advertisement. They aren’t aware of the differences between an on air news host with no journalism background and an actual reporter.

    There needs to be a move toward media literacy that can start in house. I think this will curb the confusion and aid in rebuilding the trust that has eroded.

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