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Why Media Brands Can't Be Trusted

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When Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently called the Internet a “cesspool” of false information, he also claimed that corporate brands such as his own are necessary filters needed to help us sort through the muck. “Brands are the solution, not the problem,” Schmidt said. “Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”

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Leading online credibility researchers such as Eszter Hargittai, associate professor at the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, are now examining the filtering role that brands are playing, and have come to some surprising — and in some cases downright scary — conclusions about their effect. The Internet, as Hargittai notes, “is a source of unprecedented amounts of content… both lauded for its breadth and critiqued for its sometimes free-for-all ethos.” In this information-rich environment, “where traditional gatekeepers such as editors no longer evaluate material before it has the potential to reach large audiences,” Hargittai believes “the ability to find trustworthy content online is an essential skill.” In their attempts to do so, her research shows, “users put considerable trust in the online equivalent of traditional gatekeepers: search engines.”

This would seem to buttress Eric Schmidt’s contention that we should put our trust in Google. After all, as Hargittai and her associates note in one study, “search engine use is one of the most popular online activities second only to email.” According to the report, called “Trusting the Web: How Young Adults Evaluate Online Content,” nearly half of all Americans using the Internet “turn to a search engine on a typical day” — the figure is even higher among the young adults she surveyed — and two thirds believe that “using search engines provides them with ‘a fair and unbiased source of information.’” Search engines, and Google’s is obviously pre-eminent, are a “crucial part of the puzzle of online credibility assessment… They have become the most prevalent tool for information seeking online with the potential to garner large influence… on what material users deem trustworthy.”

While Hargittai’s research showed that “brands were a ubiquitous element throughout our respondents’ information-gathering process,” it also revealed a frightening lack of knowledge as to how brands such as Google actually operate in the information sphere. The study noted, for example, that only 38 percent of Internet users were aware that sponsors pay for their links to appear first on Google’s search engine results page. “Our findings suggest that students rely greatly on search engine brands to guide them to what they then perceive as credible material simply due to the fact that the destination page rose to the top of the results listings of their beloved search engine.” Google’s branding is so powerful, in fact, that more than a third of the study’s participants used its brand name as a verb, regularly responding “I’ll google it” when asked how they would complete an information-seeking task — despite the fact that the company admittedly performs no credibility verification whatsoever of the information links it offers, and features paid sponsored links more prominently than others.

The effect of branding is so powerful, especially among the young, that almost all (98 percent) participants in the study sample mentioned a name brand at some point. Google (85 percent) and Yahoo! (51 percent) were mentioned most frequently, followed by several others leading brands, including Facebook and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. “Known brands were essential signifiers of quality for respondents, and seem to serve as an important part of users’ daily information-gathering routines,” the study notes. “Mentions of corporate brands dominated students’ reported habits, with 63 percent of all respondents mentioning a corporate brand as part of their routine search behavior.”

These findings suggest to Hargittai’s team that, “while users may feel confident in their ability to find accurate and credible information online, that confidence may not be translating into an increased skill level in credibility assessment.” Perhaps worse, “students’ level of faith in their search engine of choice is so high that they do not feel the need to verify for themselves who authored the pages they view or what their qualifications might be.”

Despite the claims of Google’s chief executive, and other leading media executives, such as Richard Stengel of Time and Paul Slavin of ABC News, corporate branding alone is clearly not enough to solve the credibility dilemma. Moreover, while reliance on trusted brands may have provided a partial answer in the past, the power and reach of news media brands in particular is now diminishing. The world now “has many, many places to turn for information, misinformation, analysis, rants, etc,” as New York Times editor Bill Keller wrote, decrying this trend in September 2008. “We — The Times, The Washington Post, Politico, the news outlets that aim to be aggressive, serious and impartial — don’t dominate the conversation the way we once did, and that’s fine, except it means some excellent hard work gets a little muffled… I’ve been repeatedly surprised at the rich, important stories that fail to resonate the way they deserve.”

Keller noted, “On one level, more people read the Times, albeit in digital form, than ever.” Important Times articles about the recent presidential campaign, he added, “did a brisk business as an e-mail forward. But so did everything else anyone had to say that day about the campaign—whether it was true or false, reported or simply asserted, fact or opinion…. Everything is equal, everything is a tie and nothing, it seems, is important anymore.

“Nobody has felt this more acutely than the Newspapers and Magazines of Record in the United States,” Keller concluded. “The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time: all over the world of ‘quality’ journalism, there is a feeling of decline.”

Keller is right – the old, self-defined world of “quality” journalism is in deep decline. Yet at the same time, engaged citizens continue to seek out true “quality” and credibility in a world that now “has many, many places to turn” for information and misinformation. It is unsurprising then that the use of social media for the delivery of news and information, although most quickly and widely adopted by the young, is rapidly increasing in all demographic groups. Ongoing studies by a New Breed of new media researchers provide ample evidence that people continue to rely on those in their networks when seeking various types of information, and that the emerging online social media can and do play a role in helping us access reliable, credible and trustworthy news we can use.

Ultimately, however, the question remains: Given the plethora of information now widely and readily available, are average citizens really interested enough and capable enough to decode that which is useful, credible, “quality information” — and that which is not? Even if interested and capable, will they take the time necessary to do so? Most careful observers agree that some filter or “shortcut” is needed to assist us in sifting through the overload of information. As Miriam Metzger, associate professor at the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says, “People know they ‘should’ critically analyze the information they obtain online, yet rarely have the time or energy to do it. Most current research shows people want to use shortcuts in determining trust and credibility. This is something known as known as ‘credibility heuristics’ — a kind of information Verisign, if you will.” Metzger concludes that, “Only the truly motivated will actually do the work required… The rest of us need and want filters. Can social networks play this role? If so, will filtering best take place in already trusted environments like Facebook? It certainly makes good sense to me — in terms of credibility at least.”

“People are always looking for trust shortcuts,” agrees Kelly Garrett, assistant professor at the School of Communication at The Ohio State University. “It’s either brands, some sort of credential, or some sort of social network – but they are making up their own ways of trust assessment.” BJ Fogg, director of research and design at Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, adds, “Brands can be shortcuts,” but points out that they are losing prominence. “The mainstream media had a sort of trusted brand—but they’ve given up a lot of trust of late,” Fogg notes. “The issue around brands is that different friends trust different brands. The challenge now is that there are no destination sites — so that undercuts the value of news brands. And lost trust equals a lost brand.” Fogg believes that the legacy media “deserves what has happened to them – and once you lose credibility, it’s very, very hard to regain. It’s hard to change people’s habits — especially the young — once that trust and that brand is damaged.”

(Coming next: Social networks are the Next Big Channel)

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Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the 'Media Is A Plural' blog, accessible at
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