How journalists can report on trust in financial services

Finance 411,


By Paddy Hirsch

Trust is a key part of the financial services business, so much so that many financial firms include the word trust in their name. That doesn’t happen in any other sector of the economy. 

Of course, consumer trust is an important factor in every business. Unless a consumer trusts a company, they won’t buy its products, and companies that betray their customers' trust do so at their peril. But for financial services providers, the stakes are a lot higher, both for their customers and for the rest of us.

Financial firms — banks, credit unions, mortgage and insurance companies and investment firms — handle the most important parts of a consumer’s life: their paychecks, their savings, their homes, their insurance, their retirement. Sell someone a bag of spoiled chips and they’ll be unhappy for a few minutes. Sell them an insurance plan that refuses to pay out when their house is flooded, or a mutual fund that goes belly up in a downturn, and you can ruin their whole life.

Trust — or lack of it — affects us all

What’s more, financial services are a key part of the economy. If you think of the economy as a human body, and money as the blood in its system, financial firms provide the arteries and the veins that funnel and ferry that blood, getting it where it needs to be, in good times and bad. We need a healthy financial system to have a functioning economy. That means we need people to trust the firms that make up that system. If they don’t, those firms will fail, and the system could fail with it.

It’s a good idea, then, for reporters to monitor consumer trust in financial services. It’s a way of gauging the health of the financial system, which has had some big shocks in the last couple of decades. It’s also a way of identifying gaps or flaws in the system that the government can fix, and that consumers can avoid. The fact is that our financial system is far from perfect, and it’s our job as business reporters to bring issues to light so they can be remedied.

Consumer sentiment is one of the most useful indicators we have to point to these issues. Fortunately, reporters who want to find out how consumers feel have a lot of help these days. Polling companies like Gallup are interested in monitoring opinion around finance, as are government organizations like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Non-profit organizations like The Urban Institute and the National Endowment for Financial Education are focused on the issue, too.

One of the best sources for research on trust in financial services are business schools at universities. The University of Chicago Booth School has a Financial Trust Index that it updates annually, and The Kellogg School at Northwestern produces research periodically on the topic. The National Bureau of Economic Research often publishes papers that address consumer sentiment and finance, and a reporter can sign up for their weekly newsletter that provides links to research material.

Consider the source

One final resource, although one that comes with a caveat: financial services companies themselves, and the firms that represent and work with them. Traditional finance companies are well aware that many American consumers have lost faith in them, and they are focused on winning back their trust. As such, they’re increasingly acknowledging in public the issues that they have, and they’re working on burnishing their public images as best they can, with accounting firms like Ernst & Young, and marketing and PR firms like Edelman. Meanwhile, financial technology companies like IBM are also talking about problems in the financial system, but for a different reason: they want to highlight the flaws in the system and shift consumers into new kinds of financial technologies that they are championing and developing. 

Financial organizations on both sides of the financial technology fence can generate a lot of content and data on the subject of consumer sentiment in their sector, and much of it can be useful. Reporters should be aware of the context in which it is presented, however, and remember always that a company’s principal responsibility is to its shareholders, and not to its customers or the public at large.


Paddy Hirsch is a Freelance Reporter for NPR. He can be reached at and their website is Finance 411 is a bi-monthly feature, presented by RTDNA and the National Endowment for Financial Education.

Finance 411 is a bi-monthly feature, presented by RTDNA and the National Endowment for Financial Education. Interested in becoming a contributor? Email for more information.