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May 2, 2024, 2:34 p.m.
Audience & Social

Even if mistrust in news isn’t entirely reporters’ fault, it is their problem

Recent work from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership offers recommendations.

In the United States, many conservatives read news coverage with suspicion or outright hostility. The result is that stories they feel positively about “feel like exceptions” and coverage that “challenges conservative sensibilities, even if fairly, will reinforce pre-existing perceptions,” as Ursinus College journalism professor and Tow Center fellow Doron Taussig wrote in recent work.

Fair or not — “a deeply entrenched narrative won’t be dislodged by coverage that breaks even,” Taussig notes.

Though polling has shown local news is more trusted than national news by Americans across the political spectrum, conservatives still don’t trust local news all that much. In 2021, a Knight/Gallup poll found just 29% of Republicans said they trusted their local news. In a succinct and worthwhile piece (“The ‘fake news’-ification of local news—and what to do about it”) informed by polling as well as interviews with local journalists and conservative readers, Taussig lays out the current state of affairs.

The following statements “contain important elements of truth,” Taussig writes:

  • Journalism is, broadly speaking, a profession that attracts liberal-leaning people, and newsrooms tend to have a liberal-leaning culture, including in more right-leaning parts of the country.
  • In recent years many liberals have become less willing to treat right-wing ideas as acceptable discourse, and less willing to use language that might feel politically “neutral”—though it is difficult to separate this development from the fact that…
  • The Trump era has made it more difficult to give respectful coverage to right-wing ideas while adhering to standards of decency and accuracy, and it is wrong to give “both sides” coverage to bigotry or lies.
  • Right-wing leaders have long found it useful to demonize the press, and now that they are less reliant on the media to reach their constituents, many have more interest in using journalists as foils than in honest engagement.

Taussig praises the “self-reflection” encouraged by organizations like Trusting News that offer training and resources aimed at helping journalists close the trust gap between their newsrooms and communities they cover. Still, the results of efforts to win the trust of conservative readers — what Taussig characterizes as “friendly outreach and labored neutrality” — in particular have been “disheartening.” (That Knight/Gallup poll found trust in local media, already low among Republicans and Independents, has dropped further since 2019.)

One common complaint from conservative readers? That journalists only publish “one side” of the story. “It doesn’t seem to me that they make a practice of quoting, or really making a legitimate effort to talk to, the other side,” one reader told Taussig.

In many instances, of course, that’s not true. A reporter from a digital publication told Taussig that the conservative members of the school board he covers “won’t speak to reporters, period.” He recalled an occasion of approaching a board member, who was polite until she realized who the reporter was, put her hands up, and backed away without saying more. (“She acted like I was sticking her up,” the reporter told Taussig.)

Taussig argues even if the situation is not entirely journalists’ fault, reader mistrust remains journalists’ problem. He believes journalists can — and should — do something about it. His recommendations included:

Publish journalism that respects — and fights for —  a variety of social groups. Taussig encourages journalists to “attract portions of the conservative audience by appealing to other aspects of their identities, and winning their allegiance by speaking to them as (for example) senior citizens, or veterans, or rural residents.”

Be more interesting. “It is probably not a coincidence that many of the media outlets succeeding with demographics that constitute big portions of the conservative audience take a splashy, tabloid approach rather than the staid tones of the broadsheet newspaper. People find ways to like content they find interesting.”

A timely new report out from Poynter and the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership offers another set of recommendations — ones that may help reporters counter the impression that news primarily quotes one end of the political spectrum.

“Shut Out: Strategies for good journalism when sources dismiss the press” acknowledges “growing adversity from public officials toward journalists” with first-hand accounts from reporters, editors, and press watchers. It’s also a tool kit with concrete suggestions for journalists.

The first? Reporters must double down on source relationships. “Even amid challenging economic pressures, news organizations must make a fresh commitment to beat reporting and source relationships,” the report notes. “Though we tout these as fundamentals of journalism, we can elevate our execution of them. Journalists must reduce reliance on email interviews, staged events, official proclamations and contact with usual suspects.”

A local accountability reporter from Florida shared his experience with community members who turned out to have friends and family members in police and sheriff’s departments. He’s been able to narrow public records requests based on their information.

Telling readers a source “could not be reached for comment” is not enough. Journalists should also be “as transparent as possible” about how they tried to obtain information and offer details when sources did not cooperate.

“Journalists are historically hesitant to make themselves the story and/or worried that admitting the government is stifling their ability to report the news is a confession of weakness. That needs to stop,” Seth Stern, director of advocacy at the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation, says in the report. “Make clear in the story that you would’ve liked to attend the event yourself or speak to the official or their staff but you weren’t allowed to do so.”

Other suggestions included pooling resources with other news organizations to secure public documents and “partner rather than compete” with other journalists to cover more ground.

Photo by Flickr user mr_t_in_dc used under a Creative Commons license.

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     May 2, 2024, 2:34 p.m.
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