A call for weighting media coverage based on trust and credibility.
by Katie Delahaye Paine
In this article I suggest that media analysis programs would more accurately reflect articles' influence on readers if the integrity of the media outlet was taken into account. This could be achieved by developing a standard measure of media integrity which would used to rate different media outlets for different shareholder groups. The resulting Integrity Index would be used to weight coverage, thereby achieving a more accurate measure of media coverage's impact on consumers.
To understand why an Integrity Index is needed, consider:
Why measure what no one believes?
Mazen Nawahi, in an impassioned speech at the 2008 Dubai Measurement Summit, raised the issue of journalistic integrity and the degree to which the integrity of a particular media outlet should be accounted for in any measurement program. Put another way, if:
- Everyone knows that a given media outlet is going to print whatever a company sends it because they always do or because they're a major advertiser, and
- Everyone also knows that they will never print stories that don't agree with the governing dogma,
then why would anyone believe anything that was printed?
And if all your media coverage in a particular outlet lacks credibility, why would you include it in your measurement results? For example, in 22 years in business I have yet to have a client want me to include The Weekly World News in its media list. So how do people justify measurement programs that include stories that do nothing to achieve their goals?
Credibility is in the eye of the beholder.
Suppose a highly credible blogger gets into a mud-wrestling contest with the blogging equivalent of a pig. The contest attracts a lot of attention, a lot of arguments fly back and forth, and a lot of dirt gets thrown around. Now for the people that are into farm animals, the arguments of the pig might be very credible. However, people interested in learning something of value professionally will no doubt pay more attention to the words of the credible blogger. But the real question is: Do you weight coverage of them both equally in your media analysis reports?
How to correct for influence?
Taking examples of this sort into consideration, it is easy to see why some sort of authority or influence weighting of coverage would be of value. There has been a fair amount of research done in this area. For several years, Angie Jeffrey at VMS has been studying various weightings of media coverage to determine which factors most directly impact sales. Her research first found that share of discussion was effective, but she postulates that advertising rates are more telling because they reflect the importance of the various media. (See this paper and this paper.) I think it's a step in the right direction, but I generally frown on the use of advertising rates (and of AVEs), so I'm skeptical.
The Media Integrity Index: Why not rate coverage on integrity as rated by stakeholders?
I suggest that it's not the ad rate but the integrity of the publication that most determines consumer credibility and thus drives consumer action. And I'm suggesting that to rank a media outlet in importance, we should ask our stakeholders how they perceive the media outlet in terms of integrity.
I raised the question on Twitter and got some interesting responses:
• "It's all relative... What is good for one is bad for the other. It has to be specified for a purpose, customized."
• "Integrity or perceived integrity? Seems there's a difference there that's highly subjective." --Ryan Anderson
• "Integrity is the measure of perceived relationship (believability) of one-to-many listeners. So measure relationships. I would suggest looking at the way political integrity is measured. It would be a perceived metric, measured by polling audience. --Videodred
• "What's the goal? What's the client want it to say? In the case of journalists, what's the relationship?
• "Integrity has to be measured parallel to influence as audience determines credibility of source." --Mike Maney
So in one way, my proposed Integrity Index has to start with the goal of the coverage. What is it that the company or organization is trying to accomplish? Consider it this way: If you don't care who or what your brand is associated with, and you want exposure pure and simple, then you don't care about the integrity or credibility of whatever media outlet is talking about you. On the other hand, if you're trying to establish a reputation, or build brand loyalty and trust, or trying to reach an audience with certain media preferences, then the credibility of media to your audience should matter a great deal.
How to determine integrity?
So how do we determine which media is trustworthy and credible, and which journalists have or do not have integrity? The wrong way is to look at a list of media and assign weights or values to each one yourself. What you think doesn't matter. All that really matters is what your customers or stakeholders or members or constituents think. So you need to ask them. The best way to do that is to use the Grunig Relationship Instrument.
Now you probably don't need to ask them about all 150 publications on your media list. Remember: Never ask a question about something that can't be changed. If The New York Times is what your boss' boss reads every morning, there's no chance in hell you'll ever take it off you top tier media list. Even if your target audience is nine-year-old girls. So start with a list of suspect publications, blogs or any other type of media outlet.
Remember that different stakeholder groups may rate a given media outlet differently. As I pointed out above, integrity is not a fixed standard. For instance, we would expect Republican viewers to rate Fox News and The New York Times differently than Democratic viewers. It is conceivable that you will want to generate different Integrity Indexes for different stakeholder groups.
Below are some survey questions adapted from the Grunig Relationship Instrument. You may wish to develop your own, based on the specific components of relationships you wish to measure (refer to this paper). Ask your stakeholders whether they agree or disagree with each statement as it pertains to each media outlet, then use the responses to rate the outlets.
1. This media outlet treats people like me and organizations like mine fairly and justly.
2. Whenever this media outlet makes an important decision, I know it will be concerned about people like me.
3. This media outlet can be relied on to keep its promises.
4. I believe that this media outlet takes the opinions of people like me into account when making decisions.
5. I feel very confident about this media outlet's skills.
6. This media outlet has the ability to accomplish what it says it will do.
7. Sound principles seem to guide this media outlet's behavior.
8. This media outlet does not mislead people like me.
9. I think it is important to watch this media outlet closely.
10. This media outlet is known to be successful at the things it tries to do.
Industry-wide integrity standards?
Now, the logical question is, "Why aren't we doing this as an industry?" Shouldn't we be factoring in credibility based on some industry-wide standard? It certainly is a more accurate weighting factor than simple eyeballs or ad cost. But the reality is that your stakeholders aren't going to be identical to my stakeholders, and what matters is how a significantly valid sample of your stakeholders feel. It would be awfully complex and difficult to set industry-wide standards for many different stakeholder groups.
On the other hand, if the PR industry wanted to take on a project to try and accurately weight publications based on their integrity, the world would most definitely be a better place. And it is not far-fetched to imagine an industry-standard Integrity Scale or Survey that could be used to determine the Integrity Index for different stakeholder groups.