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April 24, 2023, 10:08 a.m.
Audience & Social

“Tell a more complete story” and other lessons from a new report on mistrust of news media

“The ‘first and most voiced complaint’ from participants was that news coverage of people like them skewed toward negative stories or reflected them in a negative light.”

There’s a new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism that focuses on distrust of news media — and what news organizations might be able to do about it.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way: the news industry is unlikely to find a silver bullet. “There is no single trust problem, and therefore there is no single trust solution,” the first line of the report reads.

The report draws on a series of focus groups with 322 people from “disadvantaged or historically underserved communities” in four countries. (In Brazil, focus groups contained Black and mixed-race audiences. In India, Muslims and those from “marginalized castes or tribes” were interviewed. In the U.K., the authors focused on working-class audiences. And in the U.S., Black and rural audiences were in the spotlight.) Despite differences between and among the focus group participants, several familiar themes emerged. Participants thought the news could be unfair, inaccurate, sensationalized, and subject to “hidden agendas” they believed shaped coverage behind the scenes.

The report’s authors — Amy Ross Arguedas, Sayan Banerjee, Camila Mont’Alverne, Benjamin Toff, Richard Fletcher, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen — wrote they were motivated to highlight these particular perspectives following feedback from newsroom leaders, “many of whom asked how they could better engage with audiences who have been historically underserved or marginalized in their country’s news coverage.”

Many of those interviewed saw news media as an institution “as an extension of systems aligned to serve those in power — systems many felt excluded from.” Those institutions are, not coincidently, also seeing falling trust.

Confirming previous studies, the Reuters focus group participants were more likely to blame news organizations and financial pressures for shortcomings than individual journalists.

“Despite often seeing journalists as out of touch and rarely having shared life experiences,” the report states, “many also emphasized what they believed were considerable constraints journalists faced when trying to cover news stories.”

One American who participated in a focus group said she felt “there are good journalists out there” but that their news organizations were the ones calling the shots: “Like, if you have a journalist for The New York Times…they’re going to write the way that The New York Times wants them to.” (The U.S. ranks last in media trust out of 46 countries, tied with Slovakia, a 2022 Reuters Institute report found.)

Some of the concerns of those interviewed echo critiques expressed by members of majority groups or those currently overrepresented in positions of power in their respective countries. But, the authors note, the stakes can feel very different.

“Privileged audiences may be concerned about, say, sensationalism, but they rarely pay a personal price,” they write. “Disadvantaged communities do.”

The “first and most voiced complaint” from participants was that news coverage of people like them skewed toward negative stories or reflected them in a negative light. Many told researchers that people like them only appeared in the news when something bad happened. For example, in India, several participants brought up widespread news coverage about a religious gathering reported to be the country’s first Covid super-spreader event.

“If you look at the national news, the only time you hear about rural issues is if a tornado went through a trailer park, or if this whole section flooded, or if, whatever,” one American participant said. “I mean, it’s only when you have a natural disaster component that I think you get rural people in.”

But the examples that came up most frequently — and which participants spoke about in the most detail — were about crime coverage. Many said news coverage overemphasizes violence in their communities. “It’s death, crime, murders, shootings,” an American participant named Gabrielle said.

Ultimately, the participants were concerned because they believed news coverage could shape “how others perceived them or even how they — and their children — perceived themselves,” the researchers found. Several people pointed to racial bias in story selection and framing:

  • “‘The white person is never disrespected. They never say that your daughter was killed because you’re a criminal. Oh, and if it’s a Black person, they’re going to say, you know, your son or your daughter was killed because you were a criminal,’ commented Heitor [a participant from Brazil].”
  • “For Alexandra [U.S.], this grievance was especially personal, following the coverage of her own father’s murder, which happened in a public park while he was playing a game of dice: ‘The way he was portrayed, they just were so focused on the dice game and gambling. Everybody gambles. Like, you go to Prairie Meadows right now, you’re gonna see 1,000 white men in there gambling, [but] because he was outside shooting dice in a park, “He’s a gangster, he’s a monster.”…They always make it seem like they deserved to die.'”
  • “When a Black person goes to jail, they make fun of us. No one interviews those [people] or anything. When a white person goes to jail, ‘Oh, my God, poor person.’ They are interviewed and all that. They are treated respectfully,” noted Gabriel [Brazil].

Other examples that made participants distrust media involved a perception that journalists are “complicit with the political establishment” or “at the very least, populated by the same kinds of people.” For example, Timothy, an Iowan, described feeling as if news organizations only cared about people living in rural areas when they needed something…not unlike presidential candidates flying into his state for photo ops with corn dogs.

The report’s authors were clear that though trust is thorny and multifaceted, there are opportunities for newsrooms to improve their standing in underserved communities. Those opportunities include relentlessly rooting out bias and inaccuracies, telling a “more complete story” through news coverage that’s more positive and relevant, diversifying newsroom staffs, and being more engaged and present where people live and work.

“Taking these steps may require reallocating often scarce resources,” the report acknowledges. “This comes down to a question of priorities — just as not taking such steps is also a choice. In other words, there is no neutral path here.”

Tweaks are not enough

The researchers found little evidence that focus group participants would be swayed by “a few tweaks.”

“Just one or two participants specifically focused on the importance of news organizations highlighting their corrections policies or providing audiences with better labeling around separating facts from opinion content — approaches that have received some attention in prior studies on trust,” the report notes.

We’ve seen a number of news startups announce their brand-new newsrooms will tackle the lack of trust in media but it’s unclear if their approach will go beyond tweaks.

There’s more than a hint of frustration in the report’s conclusion:

It is also worth underscoring how similar issues have been raised by study after study after study for a very long time. More than half a century ago, in 1968, the Kerner Commission critiqued the U.S. news media’s distortions and inaccuracies in its coverage of Black people, its use of “scare headlines,” its dependency on inexperienced or prejudiced officials as authoritative sources in stories, its bias towards divisive racial framing of conflict, and a general neglect of the lived experiences and perspectives of Black people and the discrimination they regularly experienced.

While our report echoes many of these concerns in a wider variety of places and among a broader range of groups, the participants in our study are but the latest in a long line of people from marginalized and underserved communities voicing versions of the same frustrations about news media. Those who lead and manage news organizations may feel they are already making good progress towards addressing many of these concerns, but on what timetable and with what urgency? It is not at all obvious to the people who participated in our focus groups that there is any sincere reckoning in the news media, let alone commitment to substantial change.

You can read the full report here. It’s also been translated into Spanish and Portuguese.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     April 24, 2023, 10:08 a.m.
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