Many Americans can still remember when Walter Cronkite, anchoring the CBS Evening News, was hailed as “the most trusted man in America.” But that was in a different time, before Vietnam and Watergate prompted a decline in confidence in all American institutions—the media included. Do any of today’s news anchors inspire the kind of trust that Cronkite enjoyed?
A new study from by the Council of Public Relations Firms suggests that no single newscaster today has Cronkite status, with the evening news anchors for the three major networks—Tom Brokaw of NBC, Peter Jennings of ABC, and Dan Rather of CBS—splitting the vote, and none of them rated “the most trusted” by more than 20 percent of those polled.
The study gave Brokaw the edge, rated number one by 19.1 percent of respondents. Jennings was second, with 16.2 percent, followed by Rather (14.6 percent), and morning show hosts Diane Sawyer (7.7 percent), Katie Couric (6.5 percent).
“No one today has anything like the impact he had on the nation,” says Council president Jack Bergen. “And it is unlikely that anyone ever will: During the Cronkite era, there were only three national broadcast networks, no cable news networks and the Internet didn't exist. The proliferation of new news outlets has changed the information landscape, with the expanding menu of viewing choices reducing the traditional broadcasts’ audience share and influence.”
When respondents were asked what specific characteristics inspired their trust, “We found that personal values and attributes, primarily perceived sincerity, honesty and candor, along with a likeable, down-to-earth personality, are most important in establishing trust and credibility,” Bergen adds. In fact, 33 percent said they based their viewing decisions on personal qualities, followed by 17 percent who place the most value on presentation and delivery, and 16 percent for whom experience and knowledge were the most important.
Bergen says that since public relations professionals are concerned about building and maintaining credibility for their clients, the trustworthiness of the media reporting on those clients is key to that credibility. He says the Council commissioned the survey to learn more about the way Americans select and evaluate their prime sources of news and information.