Chinese trust in the media: How is it measured, and does it matter?

A large-scale survey by Penguin Intelligence finds that Chinese users give the mass media a trust score of 61.2 (out of 100) on average.
Chinese trust in news media

The data

A large-scale survey by Penguin Intelligence finds that Chinese users give the mass media a trust score of 61.2 (out of 100) on average.

The specific question: “If you were asked to give an overall ‘trust score’ to all the media channels you come into contact with, what score would you give?”

The answer averages out 38,482 responses, with most falling in the 40 point to 80 point range:

China market research: do chinese people trust the media: Chinese media credibility

Why it matters

Plot twist: it doesn’t.

Stats get thrown around all the time, but trust is an amorphous, complicated concept, and there’s no universally agreed-upon metric for measuring it.

For starters, there’s more than one type of trust: the public might have faith in a media organization’s basic ability to report the news, but mistrust its motives, or find it unreliable (Institute for Public Relations).

Secondly, various biases can abstract the numbers into meaninglessness:

  • People are much more likely to trust media that they consume, and rate “their” media differently than “the” media.
  • “Central tendency bias” means that survey respondents may be more inclined to choose a score somewhere in the middle of the point range in order to avoid seeming to hold extreme views. Experts at Hong Kong-based user experience firm Kaizor Innovation note that the Chinese users they interview tend to choose neutral responses to avoid giving offense.

Point is, in the absence of a longitudinal survey, slapping a number on “trust” in general is kind of a nonsense exercise.

When you can get some data from a consistent source over time, though, that’s when you can track a real trend. Gallup has been digging into American trust in the media for the last five decades:

When Gallup first asked Americans to evaluate the mass media in a 1972 survey, 68% said they trusted it a great deal or a fair amount. In 1974 and 1976 surveys, trust remained near 70%.

Two decades later, the next time Gallup asked the question, trust in the media had fallen to 53%. It held at about that level through 2003, before falling to 44% in 2004 amid controversy over inaccurate reporting by Dan Rather of CBS News about George W. Bush’s military service. CBS later issued an apology for the report. Although media trust rebounded slightly to 50% a year later, it has yet to return to the majority level.

China Market Research: Chinese user media trust Via Gallup

China does not have 50 years of trust polling to help us understand the general population’s relationship to media content. Here’s what we do have:

  • One-off surveys by big data aggregators, like this one by Penguin (a sub-division of Tencent)
  • Official 2017 numbers from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s “Online Media Credibility Survey”, which is partly informative, and partly a vehicle for the justification of media censorship (QQ Tech)
  • Annual surveys conducted by media organizations – the earliest we’ve found begin in 2012

Some of that data is interesting, but I wouldn’t call any of it actionable. And that’s the real takeaway here: we have no real idea how much trust Chinese users have in media – online or offline.


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