Disclaimer: The conclusions and opinions expressed in this study represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views or official position of the U.S. government, Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.
When it comes to media literacy, the American public seems more receptive than ever to understand the implications of taking a discerning, critical view of information. In fact, 63% of Americans think that being skeptical of the news media is a good thing.
As public relations professionals, we don’t disagree. That skepticism is good, especially when paired with a public that can discern meaning and quality within the media.
Intertwined with media literacy is the public’s value of journalists’ credibility. Trust in media has declined greatly, and a recent poll placed media toward the bottom of a list of trust levels in professions serving the public.
We understand the American media’s role as an independent watchdog and their desire to tell both sides of the story. Yet, it starts to fray at the edges if journalists use frames resulting in potentially misleading labels, putting the onus of discerning the quality of a source cited in an article on the reader.
Drawing from intermedia agenda-setting theory, my colleagues and I conducted an experiment to investigate credibility. We were interested in how western media quoted other media outlets in their coverage. Specifically, does the label that the journalist assigns the cited media make a difference? Looking at this issue from a public diplomacy lens, we studied how journalists referred to the soft power tool of a state-run, government-controlled (propaganda) news agency out of China.
Journalists told readers who their source was, but did readers understand?
- 225 participants in the study read a news article where the journalist described the cited source as “a state-run news agency run by the Chinese government.”
- Another group of 226 participants read a news article where the journalist described the cited source “a news agency based in China.”
- A control group of 225 participants read a news article where the source was merely cited, without any explanation of the media type.
Only 30% of participants in this study understood what propaganda was and that state-run news means that the media is completely controlled and censored by the government. This was an early indicator that media literacy was low, and vague labels of the soft power tool would not be fully understood by the public.
- Framing the soft power tool as a state-run news agency actually increased credibility of China for participants.
- Credibility of the soft power tool was predicted by the initial article’s credibility and a low propaganda knowledge This means that people with low media literacy relied on the journalist to signal whether a cited source was credible, and the credibility of the initial article transferred to the cited source.
These findings suggest that even if journalists technically describe the nature of a state-run news source, journalists are assuming a greater level of media literacy than the public here displayed. Given that only 7% of the sample had heard of the state-run news agency by name before, the words used to describe the cited source became even more important.
This study illustrates the impact of a public diplomacy soft power tool like a state-run news agency. The soft power tool drew credibility from the initial media article, as previous research suggested it would. This credibility transfer was facilitated by low media literacy (an inability to identify propaganda).
This stands as another tangible cost of poor media literacy. The participants in this study were willing to transfer credibility of western outlet to the soft power public diplomacy tool when it was cited within the article, and that then fed into an inflated credibility of China. If you’re a government communicator in China, it worked. If you’re a government communicator in the US, you should take notice.
The results here highlight a vital task for public relations practitioners working in industries internationally where there are state-run media or controlled media systems. Public relations practitioners must work to increase media literacy among their publics, including reporters.
Rieger, R. A., Keiley, J. P., Hathaway, M. L., Walker, T. B., & Sweetser, K. D. (in press). Don’t say I didn’t warn you: An intermedia agenda-setting experiment of public diplomacy. Public Relations Journal.
Kaye Sweetser, Ph.D., APR+M, Fellow PRSA, is a professor of public relations at San Diego State University and the coordinator of their School of Journalism & Media Studies Military PAO Graduate Program. Follow her on LinkedIn or JMS on Twitter.