White paper writers often ask me, “What makes a good source?”
That’s a great question in today’s era of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
Deliberate falsehoods are being spread from many sources: social media chatbots, agents of foreign governments, clickbait creators—not to mention vendors lying about their products.
Because of all this deceit, a recent survey (discussed below) found that 6 out of 10 people find it hard to tell if a news item is fake or real.
Facing all this, how can a white paper writer possibly generate any trust from readers today?
Fortunately we can take some direction from two recent surveys that reveal who the public trusts most.
Survey 1: The Trusting News project
The Trusting News project has done some fascinating work to help newsrooms build trust with readers.
The Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri spearheaded this effort.
In early 2017, 28 newsrooms across the country took a major survey. They asked 8,728 Americans to name three news sources they usually trusted and three they seldom trusted.
Here are the top 10 most trusted sources:
- The Economist
- Public television*
- BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)*
- NPR (National Public Radio)*
- PBS (Public Broadcasting Service)*
- The Guardian
- The Wall Street Journal
- Los Angeles Times
- The Dallas Morning News
Notice how 1, 3, 4, and 7 are all British. Some commentators have joked, “Maybe it’s the accent? For whatever reason, Americans rate UK sources quite trustworthy.
Also note that 2, 4, 5 and 6 are closely related: The BBC is public TV in the UK, while PBS is public TV in the U.S. Add in 5 for NPR, public radio in the US, and that’s 4 of the top 10 all marked *. Americans rate public broadcasting quite trustworthy.
And here are the bottom 10 least trusted:
- Occupy Democrats activist group
- Social media (in general)
- President Trump
- Internet (in general)
- Huffington Post
- The Blaze
I’m happy to see that not everyone believes everything they see on Twitter and Facebook or on partisan sites like Breitbart or Infowars.
Of course these ratings vary with the respondent’s age, race, sex, and politics.
For example, The New York Times is highly trusted by liberals but not so much by conservatives. These mixed results knocked it out of either Top-10 list. It’s near the middle of the list.
You can see the full report here. It’s worth checking out to see how lots of other sources stack up.
What does this survey mean for white paper writers?
In a white paper, we clearly want to quote from sources that most readers find believable and avoid those that most people find untrustworthy. Here are a few tips I’ll be following from now on.
Tip 1: Use British sources for global trends
In some white papers, I’ve quoted from The Economist. After seeing how it tops the list of trusted sources, I will surely use it as a reference more often.
Another British source I like is Raconteur, which creates special reports for the Times and Sunday Times newspapers in London. These feature thoughtful, well-researched articles. Some recent issues it has covered include fintech, healthcare, and blockchain. Raconteur also creates interesting infographics.
You may have to supplement your references with American sources, but that’s okay.
Tip 2: Don’t quote from network news
I rarely use a story from network news and I won’t do it again after seeing how poorly these sources fare in this survey. As an alternative, I’ll look for a similar story on public broadcasters like PBS, BBC, NPR, or CBC in Canada.
Tip 3: Don’t quote the Huffington Post
I just finished a white paper on office design where I quoted the Huffington Post. Never again.
The news site does cover a broad swath of topics. But since so few people trust it, I won’t quote it.Of course, the tabloid newspapers are even worse. But we’d never quote any of them in a white paper, right?
Survey 2: Edelman Global Trust Barometer
For more than 20 years, worldwide PR firm Edelman has been measuring trust in more than 25 countries for its Global Trust Barometer.
Their latest results paint a disturbing picture.
“We have a world without common facts and objective truth,” says the 2018 executive summary. “The rise of disinformation … undermines the very essence of rational discourse and decision-making.”
In 2017, the United States endured “the worst collapse ever recorded in the history of the Global Trust Barometer … The public is fearful, and trust is disturbingly low.”
Right across the board, American trust in business, government, NGOs, media, peers, and social media platforms crashed.
The only bright spot is that trust in experts is rising:
- Technical experts are trusted by 63%
- Academic experts by 61%
- Financial analysts 50%
- Successful entrepreneurs 50%
Some other roles are recovering, but still trusted by less than half the people surveyed:
- CEOs 44% (up 7%)
- Journalists 39% (up 12%)
- Government officials 35% (up 6%)
For example, Canada has not experienced anything like the drop in trust that occurred in the U.S. And trust in China is still rising. So as usual, be aware of the context you’re writing about.
What does this survey mean for white paper writers?
Here are a few more tips.
Tip 4: Quote experts, not publications
The Edelman survey shows that quoting from newspapers, magazines, NGOs, or government reports just doesn’t cut it today.
Instead, we gain more credibility by quoting from technical experts, academics, and business people. And it’s better to find disinterested third parties, rather than company employees.
Tip 5: Quote people, not institutions
This final tip is subtle and came to me after some reflection. From now on, I intend to reformat any quotes from published reports to highlight the authors who actually wrote the report instead of the institution that published it.
You can usually find their names on the cover or copyright page. Choose the lead author as your source.
For example, my attributions will change from “a recent report from Deloitte Services LP” to “a recent report headed up by Patricia Buckley, managing director for Economics at Deloitte Services LP”.
With faith in institutions slipping so badly, I believe that quoting an individual by name will create more trust with readers.
I’ll be watching keenly for next year’s report to see if trust is recovering or continuing to plummet.
Good luck finding trusted sources for your white papers!
Where do you find trusted sources for white papers? Please share your tips and insights in the Comments section.
Want to hear whenever there’s a fresh article on this site? Subscribe here to stay in the know on long-form content. From time to time, we’ll also send you word about some great new resource or training. And you can unsubscribe any time.