Nieman Lab recently did a feature on a Simmons survey of which publishers the American public most trusts and it piqued our interest to say the least.
Essentially, the American public does not trust media organizations very much. Even the most trusted Wall Street Journal only garnered around 58 percent of the public’s trust, while the bottom-placed Daily Caller ranked even below InfoWars with just 22.5 percent of people saying they trusted the publisher.
We decided to look at the engagement data for October to see what we could discover about how trust affects engagement on social, and what content these publishers were putting out.
The first thing to note is who exactly we are looking at in this analysis, and that is the ten most and ten least trusted publishers from the list, which you can see in the chart below:
Unsurprisingly, the trusted publishers tended to be the ones that have been around a long time, be that in national newspaper or cable news form, with prominent household names notable on the list.
The least-trusted publishers tended to be those of the internet age, who either solely or principally publish online. That should hypothetically give them an advantage in the digital realm, and in terms of garnering engagements, but does it?
Well, unsurprisingly the answer is complicated, and differs between web content and native content. Let’s start with the web.
Engagement of most and least trusted publishers on the web
For web content, the legacy publishers were dominant, with content from bbc.com and bbc.co.uk combined driving over 40 million engagements for October.
The New York Times and The Washington Post were the other top performers in the most trusted bracket with the Times generating over 30 million engagements and The Post garnering 21 million.
Despite being two of the most trusted publishers, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal were the bottom of that side of the table in terms of engagements. There are mitigating factors, however, with the Journal of course being behind quite a strict paywall, which limits the amount of social engagement that its articles will drive.
In terms of the least trusted, there was still little correlation between trust and engagements driven with Breitbart and Daily Caller driving more engagements than several of the more trusted publishers, despite the lack of trust with which a number of Americans view these publications.
The drop-off was much more severe here though, with all but these aforementioned two garnering far fewer engagements than any of the more trusted publishers.
For average engagements, the pattern shifts a little, with different publishers faring well on both sides, and only The New York Times keeping its relative position in the top three.
For the trusted publishers NBC makes a leap to the top of the rankings, while BuzzFeed News and Mother Jones do much better on average engagements than Breitbart or The Daily Caller, both of which tumble in the rankings when we change the metric.
In terms of the content being published, the standout is that political stories do well, and that is the main trend we picked up here. There are two caveats of note when acknowledging this, however.
The first is that, as we noticed in the last iteration of this blog, the publishers that have the highest levels of trust have viral articles that go beyond merely politics, with the WSJ and Forbes having a lot of business-focused stories, for example.
The second noteworthy comment to make is about proactivity vs. reactivity in the covering of politics.
The trusted publishers tended to have top stories that featured deep investigations, such as the Times’ piece on President Trump’s inheritance. The trusted publications tended to be breaking the news, and having people react to it, rather than looking to retroactively talk about it, which is what a number of the less trusted publishers tended towards in terms of their most engaged stories.
Engagement of most and least trusted publishers on the web
The view from Facebook is a little different, with the digital native publishers having a natural advantage there.
Occupy Democrats had a far larger number of engagements than its trusted rivals, as did Breitbart for Facebook native content, both having around double the ten million engagements that ABC drove.
It was a case of higher highs but lower lows, however with everything below Daily Caller driving far fewer engagements for the month than trusted publishers, with only The Blaze driving more than a million engagements for the month among the less trusted side.
We see a similar picture with average engagements, with Breitbart and Occupy Democrats significantly outperforming all other publishers we looked at for October in terms of average engagements per post.
Most of the legacy publishers hovered around the 2,000-3,000 engagement mark per post, with only the BBC breaking out, standing out from the crowd with almost 10,000 engagements per post.
One thing worthy of note in terms of the type of content being produced, or the actions taken by the audience on that content at least, is that the less trusted publishers tended to garner a far higher proportion of shares on Facebook, while the more trusted publishers received more Angry and Love reactions.
Both sets of publishers received a similar amount of likes and comments, standing at around 35 percent and 9 percent respectively, but there were significant differences in the other metrics. The trusted publishers’ content provoked an Angry reaction 9 percent of the time and a Love reaction eight percent of the time, compared to six percent Angry and four percent Love from the less trusted publishers.
The share count for less trusted publishers’ content, meanwhile, stood at some 38 percent, much higher than the 28 percent it drove for the legacy media organizations. The production of shareable content that stands out in the feed is one tactic for success, and it is clear that the digital natives have embraced this is a tactic.
So, although we have learned that trust does not necessarily correlate to engagements, it is clear that there are content tactics to be applied on either side. The digital natives have a much more Facebook-focused tactic, while much of the engagement to the trusted legacy organizations comes from engagement to web articles.
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*Correction – An earlier version of this publication misstated that the trust data came from Gallup, not Simmons
Benedict Nicholson is the Managing Editor at NewsWhip. An Englishman in New York, he is interested in the intersection of PR, brands, and journalism, and the trends and innovation around that.
Email Benedict via email@example.com.