Friday, August 18, 2017

Most Trusted

I'm writing up a new intro for a "fake news" talk I'm giving in San Antonio last week. Two of my main interests are politics and online technologies. It's always fascinated me how news in general has become decentralized, and also custom tailored to the people watching it.

One of my earliest memories of being aware of news media was seeing Walter Cronkite on TV. I was reading about Cronkite's career, and I kept seeing he was called "The Most Trusted Man in America." That seems like an awfully lofty title to me, so I looked into that and found that it was based on an actual national survey, where people were asked who they trust the most. Cronkite won handily, in at least a couple of different years -- there was a poll in 1974 and another 1985. Admittedly, the number of options in the polls were somewhat limited, but still, the narrative of Cronkite as "most trusted" has persisted.

And I thought that was odd, because the question "Who is the most trusted person in America?" doesn't seem to even have any clear meaning in 2017. Back then, there were three major networks which ran nightly news; today we have thousands of websites that people follow and curate based on how much the sites say things they like to hear.

Still, I looked into this further, and found that a similar survey was done in 2013, and boy, are the results revealing. The most trusted man in America is... Tom Hanks.

Second is Sandra Bullock. From there the list goes:

3. Denzel Washington
4. Meryl Streep
5. Maya Angelou
6. Steven Spielberg
7. Bill Gates
8. Alex Trebek
9. Melinda Gates
10. Julia Roberts

So obviously a bunch of things jump out from these results. Five of the top ten are actors. One is a director, one is a game show host. The first person on the list who is not an actor is Maya Angelou, who is a lovely and interesting person, is primarily known in the public consciousness as a poet, so she's still sort of in the "entertainment" category. So that's eight out of ten who are entertainers, with Bill and Melinda Gates presumably being trusted at least as much for their charitable foundation as for Bill's history as a software magnate.

There's something weirdly, ironically interesting about a list of "the most trusted people in America" being more than 50% composed of people (if we include Spielberg) who make pretend stories for a living. (That's not an insult. I love movies, and I respect actors and directors. I just don't primarily think of them as people to go to for advice and information.)

Nobody who investigates or reports news is anywhere to be seen on the top ten. I know some people would conclude this means that journalists are inherently untrustworthy, but I think that's a little oversimplistic. Instead I'd point out say that that the way people get their information in an extremely fractured way now. As individual, you may trust or listen to one set of voices, but no matter who those might be, there are almost certainly a lot of people who actively, aggressively dislike them and think they are the biggest liars on the planet.

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