TRUST SCHOLAR Q&A
Sylvia Chan-Olmsted: Media industry must get beyond credibility and look at new factors that impact trust
Sylvia Chan-Olmsted, Ph.D., is the Director of Media Consumer Research and a professor in the Department of Telecommunications at the University of Florida. Her research includes digital and mobile media consumption, branding and strategic management in emerging media and communications industries. The interview took place in July of 2020. It has been edited for length and style.
Tell us about yourself.
My interest is in media management and marketing. I’m in the business aspect of media and communication studies, and I’ve been teaching media management for the last 20 years. My work is very global, very international. I’m a full professor and I run media consumer research projects. In the last 10 years or so, I have been working with industry practitioners, especially in Europe because it’s tough to work with the industry people here. Everything is sensitive—you cannot do this, you cannot do that. The key to what we do is to share knowledge with others. I’ve worked with Twitter Europe. I’ve worked with Google Europe. European companies are much more open to sharing knowledge.
Tell us about the data and information you study.
I am curious about what’s happening around me. I like to go beyond the traditional academic studies and work on research that is impactful to the industry, addressing issues that media and marketing communications professionals need to understand to make better consumer-facing decisions.
For example, one large-scale project I did with Google in Europe was the engagement differences between online on-demand video platforms like YouTube and traditional, at-home, linear TV. At a consumer level, we actually used implicit research tools. We hook the consumers up in a lab and monitor everything: respiration, heart rate, eye tracking, and we also talk to them in depth. We set up everything in Hamburg, Germany. We set up a living room as a lab and talked to 200 customers, which is huge. We presented it to Google and they let us use the data as well.
You’re studying consumer behavior as it relates to media.
Yes, consumer behavior, and its implications in terms of media decisions
Tell us about the factors that weigh on trust.
One of the streams of research that I’m working on is human and machine collaboration. In order for humans to realize the utility that AIs provide, there has to be some kind of trust of the process and the function. Is the machine a tool or is it a teammate? When you move from tool to teammate, there is a trust continuum. Traditionally, trust in media is about credibility, integrity, benevolence, competence—all these things. It’s all very, very established. We have a lot of literature about media trust.
However, the traditional media trust metric is largely dependent on credibility. It’s about the source, the credibility, the integrity. But today’s trust in media is not like before. Media now is not a source thing. Media is my life. Media is integrated into people’s decision making. I had a longitudinal, large-scale study where I asked what media is and they said, “Media is my connection to the world.” News is not as simple as we think.
You have to look at news and all media differently, not only based on traditional trust metrics. I’m trying to come up with a different kind of trust scale in media that takes into consideration this kind of life relevancy. I think it’s important. We did media brand trust interviews in multiple countries, and lots of people don’t have high trust for something, but they’ve used it a lot. So, we cannot talk about credibility and integrity only. We have to talk about life relevance and the importance of relationships. ‘I like Twitter so much’ or ‘I hate Twitter’ will influence how I trust the content there.
What you’re saying is that media has changed and trust in media must be looked at differently.
Yes. Trust is not credibility. They’re two different things. They’re highly related, but they’re not identical. So, what I’m proposing is that the relational aspect is becoming more important. Media is trying to be tech, and tech is trying to be media. It’s global and it’s pitched across platforms. So, if the world is so multi-dimensional, why are we looking at things as one-dimensional?
If trust is no longer about credibility, what is it about?
What we found initially is that media brand trust is about having a consistent experience through the ecosystem. So, it’s not just the brand, it’s the whole experience. And you know why? Because Amazon changed us. A lot of digital experiences changed us. We have certain expectations. Trust is not just about content. I’ve got to feel I can trust your performance in every aspect.
Trust is also about information safety. Your intent is very important. You got to be open and transparent, independent, high quality, professional and not always so emotional. They have to sense that you are fair.
Does American media see these changes and are they adapting?
I think they are adapting as fast as they can, but there’s a tricky balance between integrity and trying to be consumer-driven. You are who you are. You cannot just cater to what people think. I also believe people don’t know what’s good until they see it. We’re in an attention economy. Think about your daily life. You’re busy. Your attention is at a premium. You only pay attention to things that are relevant and important to you.
In an attention economy, is trust vital?
Yes. It’s vital. It’s fundamental in many aspects..
Do media companies need to adjust in order to increase this trust?
I think management makes a huge difference. Managers have to create an environment so that designers, engineers and content creators can create the optimal experience. This is strategic. Upper management has to say this is a priority. I want to stress that this does not diminish the importance of credible, good quality content, but ensure that the content is optimized for trust building.
That’s a very practical way to look at trust.
In today’s competitive environment, you cannot be good at just one thing. We can only be at the top when we put together and understand as many pieces of the puzzle as possible. You have to think like that.
Tell us about your project with the Consortium. You are working with My Thai, a professor of computer and information sciences, on machine learning systems that identify fake imagery.
Her expertise is using machine learning theory and practices to identify visual images and classify them. We’re talking about deep fakes, and her focus is machine learning systems that can detect and explain the occurrence of fake images. But the explanations are not very human-centered. If you read something, it’s just so mechanical. I always wondered why people would trust this.
We thought a good way to work together would be for her to focus on the assessment and for me to focus on how the machine communicates this information—what will create better trust from a human counterpart or collaborator. So, that’s what we’re trying to do: use the explainable, self-aware machine learning system to identify these fake, altered images and then communicate that assessment to the human decision maker.
How important is it that people be able to differentiate real imagery from something that’s altered or fake? Most people would say it’s vital, but why?
You want to seek truth. It does not matter what your political view is. The issue now is that people have a different way of arriving at a solution for that truth. So, if there is some way to enhance the truth-seeking process, that is good. We should think about ways—could be technology, could be content, whatever—to uncover the best way of reaching the truth.
The same question for developing a new scale for trust in media. Why is that important?
It’s good to have some metrics that reflect the reality of how people use media, so we can go beyond just content and the traditional one-way, single-platform mentality when examining trust. I believe it’s good for business to take stock from something that’s reflective of reality. It’s also good for us to understand this relevancy and life-integration perspective so we can make real changes.