Trust, credibility, and the demise of brands

This essay by Rory O'Connor provides an important perspective on the future of media, in particular with some insights on the question of trust. I think the trust and credibility issue is really central to understand for the future of our information world - and particularly the future of scientific publishing where my interests lie. Rather than looking into who actually wrote something they read, people online have come to trust based on how they reach the information - via search engines, or through their social networks, for example. This article mentions the concept of "'credibility heuristics' -- a kind of information Verisign" - up to now, media "brand" (the names of major newspapers, TV networks, etc) has been a central shortcut for many people's perspective on the world - they knew they could trust certain brands to mostly provide them with important, reliable information.

That trust in brand has been lost for the major media, and I don't see any of them regaining it easily. One major mistake, one clear case of misplaced priorities or out-and-out bias, and you've broken your credibility in a way that it might take a thousand good stories to recover from. The Judith Miller business severely damaged the NY Times, for instance; the recent George Will climate column fuss added to the damage at the Washington Post; Jon Stewart's skewering of CNBC's performance has probably damaged that network for a long time to come. And even for major media outlets that have done nothing wrong, the mistakes of their peers have weakened their credibility significantly as well, because how do we know they are any more trustworthy, even if we don't have any obvious examples of problems?

I think it's clear the preeminent science journals still have that trust and credibility from the community they serve. But is that something they can maintain? The same young people who trust Google for their other information, when they become the next generation of scientists will no longer care about the "brand" where a scientific work was published. There's a real threat that the newspapers are facing now; their transition to some new form will be far from painless. I think there will be actions the scientific community needs to take soon to lay our own path to the future more clearly, and the story of the decline of newspapers may have a lot of lessons for that transition.

Jay Rosen has a good collection of the recent newspaper futurism articles.