Media and journalism issues

The perils of measuring ‘brand level trust’

Gemma B. Mendoza

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

The perils of measuring ‘brand level trust’
As an institution that is molding the minds of aspiring journalists, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism should be teaching them courage, not a mindset that this profession will make them win in a Miss – or Mister – Congeniality contest

More than 30 years ago, Noam Chomsky, one of the foremost critics of the media establishment, came up with the book “Manufacturing Consent.” 

A searing critique of the news media’s relations to power, the book shatters the mirage of a free and independent press in the context of democracies. It exposed the mechanisms through which the media is manipulated by the powerful in order to effectively suppress the voices of the marginalized. 

Chomsky’s criticism, though discomforting, has provoked tremendous soul-searching among journalists and media watchers. (If you have not yet read it, you may want to watch Richard Gizbert’s interview of Chomsky  on Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post, made in 2018 or  three decades after the book was published.) 

Why am I talking about Chomsky? Because the Digital News Report that the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) published recently once again ignores this context when it published its most recent survey on “brand level trust.” 

In my critique of their trust survey last year, I pointed out that since the RISJ is an institute that studies journalism, it should reexamine its goals for generating its report and methodology, and, more importantly, the questions it was asking. Because if RISJ’s goal is to promote independent journalism that truly serves the public and is free of fear and favor (which was the point of Chomsky’s critique), then the manner by which they are measuring and presenting trust is not only problematic but also counterproductive. 

Daily battle

With the way things are, a battle is fought every day in every newsroom: does a story deserve to be written and published or not? 

The process of researching and writing a story takes time and investment on the part of the newsroom, which has to pay salaries and other operational expenses required to maintain a content distribution operation. An investigative story that exposes wrongdoing in government, for instance, takes more time to produce than a simple fun listicle or worse, an AI-generated piece. 

When that story gets published, the return on that investment, in terms of pageviews necessary to generate advertising income may not be worth it from a revenue perspective. More than that, it exposes newsrooms and media owners to risks that Chomsky himself highlighted in his work. In the case of media owners, this could come in the form of backlash against other business interests. The newsroom itself may lose advertisers. The flak machine, which has evolved into troll armies in the age of social media, may get activated. 

My point is that if the news media is to fulfill its role as a check to power, an institute that is teaching and molding the minds of aspiring journalists should be preparing them to wage that daily battle. It should be teaching them courage, not a mindset that this profession will make them win in a Miss – or Mister – Congeniality contest

Indicators of trustworthiness

How should trustworthiness be measured then? 

There are many existing frameworks for scrutinizing newsrooms and the work of journalists that the RISJ could have taken into consideration. 

These frameworks, such as that of the Journalism Trust Institute and the International Fact Check Network’s Code of Principles require newsrooms to disclose ownership, sources of funding, methodologies, and other potential sources of biases. All of these are supposed to help newsrooms and journalists convince the public that they are “trustworthy” and are able to report independently. Barring that, at the very least they are supposed to help the audiences contextualize news reporting.

In February this year, the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), which covered over 20 countries, published a report which examined Philippine news websites’ risk of disinforming their readers.

News websites reviewed (Rappler included) were informed of how they fared months ahead of the release. For those interested, areas for improvement, and potentially areas of concern, were explained and those reviewed were given the opportunity to address them. I felt that the process and the methodology was constructive and helpful not just for the newsrooms but for the audiences they served. 

Correlation between media criticism and distrust

This is not to say that the RISJ report did not evolve its methodology since my critique last year. I pointed out last year that while the report did cite attacks against media groups, it stopped short of drawing a causal relationship between online disinformation and trust.

This year, it looked into this and showed a correlation between exposure to what it tamely describes as “media criticism” to distrust in news. Specifically, it said that higher proportions of people say they distrust media in markets where there is a higher proportion of people exposed to news media criticism.

Note the wording, though. “Criticism” is a substantial understatement for sustained harassment and disinformation that state-aligned propaganda networks have been inflicting on newsrooms that do not toe the line. It is mentioned in the text reports but visuals like these don’t quite represent the level of demonization on social media that journalists and news organizations have to face whenever they try to hold the powerful to account. 

What is interesting in the findings is that globally, the Philippines is among the top 10 in terms of the proportion of respondents who “quite often” or “very often” hear people “criticizing” journalists or the news media.  

Self-fulfilling ratings

This brings me to the last point: if the goal is to be constructive and helpful, then why continue publishing these brand level scorecards when you already know this context? At what point do these brand level trust or distrust ratings become self-fulfilling labels?

RISJ has been warned repeatedly that their scorecard has been weaponized. But beyond public apologies over the “misuse of their research” it persists in giving the abusers a loaded weapon with which to abuse journalists. 

In contrast, when the Philippine GDI was released, the researchers identified the news websites that were part of the sample, but chose not to release the actual rating that each of the sites received. The point, they said, was not to “name and shame.” After all, one of the tenets of good journalism is to minimize harm. 
If the RISJ wants to be helpful, it could have been more mindful of this. It only has to look at the responses to its tweet apologizing for the fact that its work has been abused to see the extent of that harm. –

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Gemma B. Mendoza

Gemma Mendoza leads Rappler’s multi-pronged efforts to address disinformation in digital media, harnessing big data research, fact-checking, and community workshops. As one of Rappler's pioneers who launched its Facebook page Move.PH in 2011, Gemma initiated strategic projects that connect journalism and data with citizen action, particularly in relation to elections, disasters, and other social concerns.