“In a pandemic good info saves lives.”
– Dr. Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University
Like much of America, I was introduced to Dr. Lipsitch in the early weeks of our education on COVID-19 when he became a fixture of news coverage. His credentials are certainly impressive. However, it was also significant that Dr. Lipsitch was being presented as an expert by some of the most trusted news brands – from CBS News to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and CNN.
On a normal day, I probably wouldn’t have been quite so attuned to his CV. (Hey, a Yale->Oxford->Harvard resume isn’t what it used to be!) But this was different. It was late February 2020, a period in which rumors and false information were running rampant across social media and our President was well, being our President, while the actual experts were warning about the seriousness of the pending pandemic. I was growing more and more uncertain and feeling vulnerable. Like many people, I was trying to figure out who I could trust to provide the closest thing to the truth in a rapidly evolving situation. In this case, Dr. Lipsitch earned my trust.
“It is universally recognized that trust can only arise under conditions of uncertainty and vulnerability, i.e., when the trustor encounters risk, and when there exists a state of dependence between the trustor and trustee.”
(Kelton, Fleischmann and Wallace, 2008, Trust in Digital Information, p. 3)
Most people have a favorite news source, be it their local news brand, syndicated news outlet, or a national news organization. And really, regardless of our personal preferences, they each have different strengths.
For national and international news brands like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, and their ilk, consumer trust is anchored by their reliability, consistency, and reputation established over time. This includes taking accountability when they fall short. Even the finest media brands occasionally make mistakes and self-correct as they pursue the truth. (“The truth is hard to find” and “worth it” ad campaigns from The New York Times brilliantly remind us of this.)
In local news, an area hit hard over the past decade, the journalists are part of the same community as their customers. They overwhelmingly share the same impact as their readers and viewers when they report the latest news and work to get to the truth.
For Seattle news reporters covering the ongoing tragedy in Kirkland, the risks are real in a way that is akin to working in a war zone. There is no doubt that the public appreciates the work they are doing, now more than ever. If it weren’t for the need for social distancing, it would definitely be “hug a local journalist day.” We’ll save these hugs for another time and deliver them when we can.
A higher mission
But today, we need much more than hugs. We need this trust to turn into funding for the costly work being done across the news industry. While these reporters are dealing with the same issues as the rest of America – shelter-in-place, vulnerable family members, work-from-home mandates, job and financial insecurity, and personal health risk – they’re not missing a beat in making sure we all stay informed.
At no time in the past century has the news industry been more vulnerable, for both the humans and the news organizations informing the body public. Trust has value. And we need to support the individuals and organizations in which we place our trust.
There is hope, signaled by the impressive growth of trusted brands’ subscription numbers over the past few years. Even in a world ruled by the attention economy, in which low quality and false information proliferates according to algorithms, the public’s willingness to invest in reliable valuable information is growing steadily.
We applaud the choice of so many media organizations to drop their subscription gates during times of crisis when getting trusted information out to as many people as possible takes precedence over the bottom line. The choice to make critical information freely available once again demonstrates how news providers feel compelled to inform the public, full stop.
It is heartening to see signs that subscriptions are coming in, despite publishers lifting these gates. However, publishers have made this move knowing full well that the likelihood of a widespread international recession may force difficult choices for everyone needing to reduce their expenditures in the near future.
However, the subscription model is far from the primary revenue source for news organizations. Most digital publishers still heavily rely on advertising support. And right now, there is a great deal of uncertainty in the advertising business. That said, we know that people are turning their attention to news at record rates. And we know that people need to make decisions about how and where they are going to spend their scarce resources of both time and money.
Normally, advertising follows audience attention. So, a surge in interest around a particular subject would lend itself to a nice uptick in advertising placements. News, unfortunately, does not always work this way. Overzealous, often blunt, keyword blocking, and avoidance have long been an issue around news content, particularly as automation and advertising exchanges delivering “blind programmatic” have taken off.
Advertisers are wise to be wary of the company their ads keep and should remain vigilant about the impact of context. However, now is not the time for advertisers to hide from so-called “hard news.” The fact is that news – now and always – is a critical component of consumers’ media diet. And right now, it is literally a lifeline.
The trust “halo”
There is a significant body of research to support how association with high reputation and trusted news experiences creates a “halo effect” for the advertising brands funding it. There is also the inverse, which shows the damage to a brand that can come from association with low-trust environments, like social media newsfeeds. DCN’s subsidiary, TRUSTX, was built entirely on the concept that trust must be married to transparency, simplicity, scale, and automation for real success.
On the local level, advertisers supporting their local news outlet is perfect karma. Local advertisers tap into the trust established by journalists who bring personal interest and community knowledge to important issues. (Contrast this with the “absentee ownership” of tech platforms with little direct experience or accountability to the local communities they serve.) Truly local advertising also helps keep these valuable publications alive and well to support communities and the businesses in them. It is a virtuous circle if ever there was one.
On the national and international level, advertisers that garner the public’s attention in the context of valued, authoritative media will accrue trust in a way that is only possible at moments like these. These opportunities are uniquely offered by news outlets such as the Associated Press, USA Today, NBC News, Vox Media, and the many dozens of other DCN members.
Step up, news matters
I was struck by a statement earlier this week from an executive at one of the “big four” advertising agency holding companies on the planet, in response to advertising technology companies marketing their capabilities to block hard news and coronavirus reports.
“I will say this again. Please, don’t block or harm news sites during this time under the pretext of brand safety. The Coronavirus topic is unavoidable, news impressions are increasing, and responsible brands should be there in respectful and meaningful ways.”
– Joshua Lowcock, Chief Digital Officer at Universal-McCann
I wasn’t being facetious earlier this week when I called on Google, the largest gatekeeper of advertising on the planet, to turn off the ability to block advertising against Coronavirus for the next six months in order to maximize funding of news organizations. Yes, by doing this Google could lose advertising business to their so-called competition. But a monopoly like Google could show the same sort of leadership for which Mr. Lowcock so beautifully advocated. We must support quality independent journalism because, as Dr. Lipsitch stated, “in a pandemic good information saves lives.”