Magazine article Insight on the News

Americans Keep Faith with Locals

Magazine article Insight on the News

Americans Keep Faith with Locals

Article excerpt

Small-business owners and teachers rank highest in credibility index; TV/radio talk-show hosts, celebrities and entertainers rank lowest.

Reliability, plausibility, integrity: These are the traits that political strategists and marketing mavens dream of. Such virtues spell credibility, at least according to the National Credibility Index, recently released with little fanfare by the Public Relations Society of America, or PRSA.

Based on several thousand in-depth interviews, this bold but quirky index rates a spectrum of public figures on levels of trust. Supreme Court justices rank No. 1, followed by teachers and local businesspeople and religious leaders; amazingly, "famous athletes" place near the bottom, surely a blow to General Mills, Nike and other companies that employ them as spokespersons. Although low on the scale, athletes outrank public personas such as political leaders, public-relations specialists, entertainers and TV/radio talk-show hosts, who ranked last.

"Measuring this reflects the dynamics of public opinion -- that it is not captive to media pressure," says social scientist Ronald Hinckley, who supervised the survey. His research team, which spent five years on the survey, found that credibility was rife with intangibles -- a complex "amalgam" of issues, demographics, attitudes, peer influence, life experience, ideology and civic involvement. The study listed 44 types of public figures; results were broken down along racial divides and according to issues such as Social Security and foreign relations. The researchers gathered some 5,000 pages of material.

Little was dumbed down. There were no famous names mentioned in the study, only categories. The cachet of "celebrity" was missing, which perhaps explains why there was "little media follow-through," according to PRSA spokesman Rich-ard George, though many media organizations called the group in June. "Some thought it was too esoteric," he says.

The news media fared well in the survey, however, with reporters and news anchors outranking governors, senators, congressmen, mayors, the president, vice president and Cabinet members. Overall, the survey found Americans to be inclined to give public figures "the benefit of the doubt." Americans also favor local rather than national figures.

But there is no such thing as a "universal authority" anymore. We pick and choose. "Depending on the issue, Americans look to different people for guidance and information," says Joseph Curley, president of PRSA. "Certain public figures and national leaders may have more limited impact than otherwise believed. …

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