Trust is the buzz word of the modern age. Who trusts whom and why? Or rather: Why are some people not (or no longer) trusted? Is mistrust in political and economic actors growing? PR agency Edelman has been researching trust in governments, non-governmental organizations, business, and the media for 20 years (https://www.edelman.de/research/edelman-trust-barometer-2020). Unfortunately, this link is not included in the otherwise very comprehensive bibliography of the dissertation by Katherine M. Engelke. Although this is not a problem, its inclusion would have enabled a broader view of empirical findings on the object of the research. However, this comment is of little importance given the author’s overall achievement.
The chosen field of research is undoubtedly relevant to society in every respect. And journalism and the media undoubtedly play a major role as trust intermediaries. The universal daily newspapers in particular represent politics, business, cultural and social environments, science, religion, law and other societal sub-systems and assess both them and the actions of the actors. This may or may not create trust, but it at least provides a platform for discussion on problems of trust. However, it is odd that the author does not address the fact that, aside from their function of reducing complexity and providing orientation for society, the media themselves have been confronted with the question of trust for decades. Especially since the advent of digitalization, the associated expansion and opening of online media production, and social media in particular, the standards of journalistic selection and highlighting of information and its consistency have been subject to regular scrutiny. Journalism and the media thus not only transport the developments, but are also exposed to all the consequences. This has caused disorientation and upheaval in the sector for almost two decades.
In Chapters 2 and 3, Katherine Engelke meticulously brings together numerous research and empirical findings on digitalization and framing. She intelligently weighs up their strengths and weaknesses, before ultimately making a clear decision in favor of the approaches that she will then be able to use for the empirical implementation, and in particular to develop the indicators and categories for her content analysis. In the fourth section – arguably too late – she also addresses trust research in great detail. Either way, the first half of the book is enriching in every sense and essential reading for anyone conducting research into trust and framing. It also sets up high expectations for the second part – expectations that are not disappointed.
The fifth chapter on »trust dimension frames« forms the transition to the author’s empirical study. In Tables 11 (cf. 248), 12 (cf. 250f.), and 13 (cf. 253), she clearly represents the elements of trust, mistrust, and trust problem frames she has deduced. The first column shows the elements of Robert Entman’s approach: problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and treatment recommendation. The middle column contains aspects focused on this, such as trust subject and object, trust tendency and worthiness, evaluation of the subjects and objects, and consideration of the planned or executed measures. In the right-hand column, Engelke identifies the possible forms (e.g. person, group, organization, system). The major advantage of this approach is its openness and thus its transferability to thematic contexts other than that of digitalization.
The author divides the nine research questions into two interest blocks. The first concentrates on the general journalistic representation of the trust dimensions; the second on the trust dimension frames in relation to digital issues. In a multi-stage process, the research team (one doctoral candidate and two student assistants) selected and examined 2091 pieces from five newspapers from the years 2002 to 2015. Der Spiegel, Spiegel online, die tageszeitung, the Stuttgarter Zeitung and the Kölner Express were determined exclusively based on the journalistic criteria of media type, range, and form of distribution. The study is in no way representative – nor does the author make any such claim.
Table 23 (cf. 350) provides a clear summary of the central trends. The media pieces examined are similar on the one hand, yet also display expectable differences. Both the problem definition and the causal interpretation concentrate primarily on persons and groups and organizations – often, no evaluations can be identified (and even if they can, it is largely the object, rather than the trust or mistrust, that is evaluated negatively) and there are certainly no treatment recommendations. The presentation of trust problems increases over the years. When it comes to digitalization, key events such as the NSA affair (2013) and the VW emissions scandal (2015) emerge as having had a negative impact on trust. The value of this study lies less in the individual results and more in the fact that, for the first time, it develops a set of instruments whose usefulness has been proven in empirical use and that is transferable to other fields.
The author – an academic officer at the University of Münster – has succeeded in submitting an empirical analysis, grounded in theory, of the three dimensions of trust-mistrust-trust problems in the context of digitalization. This goes some way towards justifying the length of almost 500 pages, although some sections could have done with abridgment before publication of the updated dissertation.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, March 9, 2020, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/22121.
About the reviewer
Dr. Beatrice Dernbach is Professor of Practical Journalism in the Technical Journalism/Technical PR degree program at Nuremberg Tech. Her focuses include trade journalism; sustainability and ecology in journalism; narration and trust in journalism; and scientific communication.
Translation: Sophie Costella