People Trust the Media Less Than Anyone with Their Personal Data

A survey found people had more trust in the government and even social media platforms when it comes to using personal data appropriately.

Jul 23 2014, 4:30pm
Image: Shutterstock/galichstudio

In the eyes of the British public, the media is the least trustworthy institution when it comes to handling personal data. That's according to a new survey from the Royal Statistical Society (RSS), in which 68 percent of responders said they had "low trust" when it came to the media or the press using their data appropriately.

That's less trust than they have in the British government, despite mass surveillance allegations; less than the National Health Service (NHS), even amid the controversial initiative; and even less than search engines and social media platforms, which are all about mining data and selling it off to advertisers.

So why does the public trust the media less with personal data than Google or Facebook?

If you dig below the surface of the survey, there are some specific questions regarding attitudes towards the media. When asked, “Why do you say you have a low level of trust in the media/the press to use your personal data appropriately?” 55 percent of respondents said that they didn't think the data would be used for their personal benefit, and 47 percent said that they didn't trust the media to keep accurate records.

These concerns are different to those with, say, insurance companies, where the main problem was that customers felt their data would be used for other purposes than those stated.

Gideon Skinner from Ipsos MORI, the survey group behind the study, told me it was worth bearing in mind that exactly what constitutes dealing with personal data "appropriately" wasn't specified in the survey; it was left up to the participants to decide. So it's not clear what personal details the respondents were worried about, and how exactly they envisioned the media interacting with that data.

But it appears that the main factor for the press scoring so poorly is that people just don't trust the institution in general. Fifty-eight percent said simply, “I don't trust them at all,” with using their data.

The RSS survey found a strong link between how trustworthy an institution is perceived as in general, and how well it is seen to handle personal data. Interestingly, they found people trusted institutions regarding use of their data less than they trusted them overall.

This was apparent across the vast majority of the sectors looked at, including the NHS, academic researchers, and mobile phone companies (the only exception was the British government, which had a slightly higher distrust in general than just dealing with data). But it was very obvious with the media, and this air of distrust is reflected in other research. In a more wide-reaching study from the Edelman Trust Barometer, a meagre 41 percent of the public in the UK had faith in their press.

As for why this is, that's beyond the scope of this research. But you could speculate that high-profile issues such as the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking and recent tabloid scandals might play a part in the perception that the media might not be the most trustworthy.

That general distrust then affects how the public sees those same institutions as handling data.

Other results from the survey could be expected. It found that more people have a positive attitude to data programs when there was a clear benefit for their data being used and shared, and protections were in place. Commercial use of data, however, was a touchy subject, which saw considerable opposition from the participants.

Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, said, “Our research shows a 'data trust deficit.' In this data-rich world, companies and government have to earn citizens’ trust in how they manage and use dataand those that get it wrong will pay the price.

“In particular, there may be big benefits to be had from data sharing within government, but to get a public mandate policymakers must be clear about the benefits and show how they will safeguard individual privacy.”