In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Media Credibility

  • Introduction
  • Understanding Trust and its Relevance to Media Studies
  • Defining, Conceptualizing, and Measuring

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Communication Media Credibility
Yariv Tsfati
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0080


Audience perceptions regarding the credibility of news media have been studied using several concepts, including “media credibility,” “trust in media,” “media skepticism,” and “media cynicism.” In general, researchers interested in the credibility concept are concerned with audience perceptions of news media, not with the actual credibility of journalists. Early research on media credibility conducted at Yale in the 1950s manipulated the credibility of communicators and measured the impact of this manipulation on audience persuasion. Only in the 1970s did scholars begin to treat it not as a static trait of the source but as a dynamic perception of the audience. A major line of research on media credibility has to do with a phenomenon called “hostile media perception,” which takes place when involved people with opposing opinions on an issue perceive the very same, seemingly objective coverage as biased against their respective points of view. Other lines of research have examined the factors underlying audience credibility perceptions and their consequences for various social phenomena. Recently, scholars have revisited early work on medium credibility to investigate audience perceptions of online versus traditional media.

Understanding Trust and its Relevance to Media Studies

The concept of media credibility is related to the more general concept of trust. If one views media credibility as audience trust applied to the news media, then one needs to better understand the concept of trust. The following are all landmark readings offering definitions, conceptualizations, and insights regarding what trust is, and what trust causes. Taken together, they demonstrate the variety of disciplines in which trust as a concept has been used: Coleman 1990 comes from a rational-choice sociological perspective, Putnam 1995 and Uslaner 2002 from political science, Seligman 1997 from religion and cultural studies, and Tschannen-Moran and Hoy 2000 from education research. Cappella 2002 and Silverstone 1999 also contribute to our understanding of the general concept of trust but situate their work in the context of communication research. Bakir and Barlow 2007 goes even further and argues that trust studies should play a more central role in communication studies.

  • Bakir, Vian, and David M. Barlow. 2007. Communication in the age of suspicion: Trust and the media. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230206243

    This collection includes several contributions explaining the relevance of the concept of trust to media studies. In particular, chapter 2 defines trust, reviews the emergence and growth of trust studies as a field of research, and calls for increased integration of trust studies and media studies.

  • Cappella, Joseph N. 2002. Cynicism and social trust in the new media environment. Journal of Communication 52:229–241.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2002.tb02541.x

    Using many examples and references that would be meaningful for communication scholars, Cappella reviews the decline in social and institutional trust and ties it to the decline in participation in social life in the United States. Argues that mistrust spreads in a memetic manner in society, and that the media do not create mistrust, nor do they create the events upon which mistrust is based, but they do transmit and circulate stories of mistrust in a way that maximizes their selection and retention by the audience.

  • Coleman, James S. 1990. Foundations of social theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

    Combining principles of rational choice with a social-psychological conception of collective action, the brilliantly written chapter 5 casts trust in a new light. Coleman defines trust as an interaction between trustor and a trustee: “If the trustee is trustworthy, the person who places trust is better off than if trust were not placed, whereas if the trustee is not trustworthy, the trustor is worse off than if trust were not placed” (p. 98).

  • Fukuyama, Francis. 1995. Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. New York: Free Press.

    A seminal text in the study of trust. Portrays trust as a secular and modern set of norms, and details its consequences for the creation of flourishing societies and economies. Secular norms, such as professional norms, are encompassed by the definition of trust, which helps us understand that trust in news media involves perceptions regarding the professionalism of journalists.

  • Putnam, Robert. 1995. Tuning in, tuning out: The strange disappearance of social capital in America. PS: Political Science and Politics 28:664–683.

    DOI: 10.2307/420517

    In this influential and widely cited political science piece, Putnam defines trust as a necessary component of the more general concept of social capital, presents data on the drop of social capital in the United States over past decades, and systematically explores possible consequences for American social life. The paper is essential for media students and scholars because it makes a compelling argument that television is responsible in part for the deterioration in US social capital.

  • Seligman, Adam B. 1997. The problem of trust. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Broad review representing cultural, critical, and linguistic approaches to the study of trust. Distinguishes between trust and related concepts such as confidence and faith. Unlike faith and confidence, Seligman argues, trust implies solidarity and unconditionality. The impossibility of confirming the intention or character of the other party is what trust shares with faith. On the other hand, trust and confidence both have to do with exchange systems, but confidence relates to “structurally determined situations,” and trust is an “unconditional principle of generalized exchange” (p. 171).

  • Silverstone, Roger. 1999. Why study the media? London: SAGE.

    Chapter 14 in Silverstone’s key text raises the importance of media for trust and ontological security. According to Silverstone, our trust in other people, necessary for the functioning of large-scale economies and societies, rests upon the constant presence of media in our lives. Excellent mix of economic and sociological perspectives on trust, combined with in-depth discussion of the relevance of trust to media contexts and the contribution of media to the creation of trust.

  • Tschannen-Moran, Megan, and Wayne K. Hoy. 2000. A multi-disciplinary analysis of the nature, meaning and measurement of trust. Review of Educational Research 70:547–593.

    One of the most comprehensive and useful reviews of conceptual and operational definitions of trust. Tschannen-Moran and Hoy review twenty definitions from various perspectives and extract the conceptual ingredients of trust: willing vulnerability, benevolence, reliability, competence, honesty, and openness.

  • Uslaner, Eric M. 2002. The moral foundations of trust. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Uslaner distinguishes between strategic trust (including institutional trust), which is targeted to people we know and is heavily based on prior experiences, and moralistic trust, which is the belief that others in general share one’s fundamental moral values. Elegant combination of bright theoretical and conceptual reasoning, and sophisticated use of ample, publicly available data. The analysis of answers to think-aloud questions is the best evidence we have to date regarding what people have in mind when they answer questions about trust.

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