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The ‘Informed Public’

The global communications firm Edelman every year puts out a huge survey of public trust levels in institutions that always gets a ton of headlines. As always, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer is stuffed with fascinating data and takeaways. This year’s headline: “despite a strong global economy and near full employment, none of the four societal institutions the study measures — government, business, NGOs and media — is trusted.” In addition, only one of these groups (business) is seen as competent.

But the Trust Barometer breaks down the public into two classes: the “informed public” and the “mass population.” The “informed public,” in Edelman’s definition, are people

  • between the ages of 25-64,
  • college educated,
  • in the top 25% of household income per age group in each of their markets, and
  • who “report significant media consumption and engagement in public policy and business news.”

The “mass population” is the rest of us — the other 83% of total global population, according to Edelman.

Edelman takes care to tell its clients (and the rest of us) how the “informed public” is different from the “mass population.” This year, they define that difference as “two different trust realities.” While the “mass population” trusts none of the institutional categories, the “informed public” trusts three of the four:

I’ve done a 30-minute (so, not comprehensive) survey of news coverage of the Trust Barometer, both this year and in previous years. Not one report questions the term “informed public” or the attributes Edelman uses to define it. In fact, many news reports use “informed public” without quotes, as if the categorization’s truth value were unquestionable. As if, for instance, one couldn’t also call that cohort “the global affluent” and the other “the left-behinds” in seeking an explanation in the difference between the trust-in-institutions levels of the two cohorts.

Research also chronically resorts to imaginary versions of “the informed public” vs. “mass population” as a kind of tribal marker/totem/safe zone when it tries to communicate.

We’re relying on this imaginary binary when we make fun of people for not understanding science or research, or when we lament their lack of “science literacy” (even though the conservatives who are most scientifically literate, science-educated and educated generally have also been the strongest deniers of the idea of anthropogenic climate change).

More than one-half of Edelman’s 2020 survey respondents in what the firm terms “every developed market” do not believe they will be better off in five years’ time. That seems a reasonable and informed conclusion.

Of employees surveyed, 83 percent are worried about losing their jobs to cheaper labor competition, automation or a declining economy. We can debate the ultimate impact of automation into the labor force, but these concerns don’t seem irrational or uninformed.

Of all respondents, 56% believe that “capitalism in its current form is now doing more harm than good in the world.” Again, is that an uninformed position?

One might ask: which cohort — the “informed public” or the “mass population” — is more “informed”?

Is “informed” ever a helpful label when you try to communicate?