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What your audience thinks of you

April 27, 2023 | By Eric Schurenberg – Founder, The Newsroom Trust Project @EricSchurenberg

The latest trust-in-media research is not pretty. But it’s not hopeless, either.

It was one of those random-but-when-you-think-of-it-not-entirely-coincidental accidents of timing, ideal for an article lede. The same day that Fox News settled its defamation lawsuit with Dominion Voting Systems, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism unveiled the latest installment of research from its Trust in News Project. The Fox case showed just how little Fox journalists deserve their audience’s trust. And the Reuters survey showed just how little our audiences trust the rest of us, whether we deserve it or not.

That Americans have lost trust in news media is not exactly a stop-the-presses revelation. But the new Reuters report adds an emotional overlay to this sorry but well-reported fact by elevating the attitudes of marginalized populations ignored by previous surveys. Suffice it to say that adding emotion doesn’t make the data any less grim. We are losing hearts and minds at a dizzying pace.

Still, there are hints of hope. The research makes clear that even those who mistrust us value the work we do, when we do it well. People still need journalism, and they know it. Out of that fact arise some suggestions for how we might dig our way out. And we must dig our way out.

In case you haven’t been tracking surveys about trust in media—and I don’t blame you if you have been avoiding them—the data has been steadily getting worse for decades. According to a Knight Gallup poll last year, just 16% of Americans have a lot of faith in newspapers and 11% in TV news. Both figures are down about two thirds as compared to 30 years ago.

This time, it’s personal

What does the new research say that we didn’t already know? For one thing, because the Reuters researchers conducted focus groups, rather than taking surveys, the report gathers some arresting personal expression from audiences. In addition, Reuters sought out subjects from groups we journalists don’t often hear from, so the perspectives are sometimes revealingly different (or depressingly the same). In the UK, researchers interviewed working class people in Yorkshire and greater London. In the US, they drew on two separate audiences, Black and rural Americans, both from Iowa. (The research also targeted comparable marginalized groups in Brazil and India.)

Across all these groups, panelists repeatedly said that they felt unseen and unheard by media. In a conversation we had at conversation at the Virginia Local News Summit in April (separate from the survey), Tracie Powell, founder of the Pivot Fund, which invests in BIPOC owned media, offered a poignant example of how that inattention feels. Describing what happened when the big-city press parachuted in to cover a three-fatality traffic accident in rural Georgia, she noted that local Black residents felt that the metro reporters lavished attention on the two white victims and gave short shrift to the Black one. “The Journal-Constitution’s reporting was accurate,” she said. “Accurate—but not true. And everyone in the Black community knew it.”

Professional judgement

When professional media do pay attention to marginalized populations, the focus group participants complained, we tend to highlight the negative—deprivation, crime and racism. “[W]eek after week, month after month, it’s mentally and emotionally exhausting,” said one Black participant. Others believe that we too easily resort to stereotypes. In the other Iowa focus group, for example, a participant told researchers that she felt that coverage of rural America quickly resorted to tropes of “corn fields and pig farms,” and depicting people like her as “a bunch of hicks.”

During a phone call, Benjamin Toff, a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute and leader of the three-year-old Trust in News Project, said that this highly personal reaction to coverage was a key difference from previous Reuters trust studies. “When you see reporting on some remote issue as sensationalistic, it sparks one kind of judgment,” he told me in an interview. “When the hype involves someone you know and reinforces stereotypes that harm you and your children, the mistrust is a lot more visceral.”

What are we in the profession supposed to do about this? To some extent, we already know the solutions, even if we have not been universally successful at putting them into practice: bring more diverse representation into our newsrooms, develop more awareness of the biases that we unconsciously import when we write about groups less white or educated or liberal then the typical newsroom.

Make the connection

The report also hinted at some more hopeful paths back to trust. Audiences in marginalized groups told the Reuters researchers they want unbiased, fair and accurate coverage of matters relevant to their lives—the same desire other audiences have. Most trust surveys, including this one, show that audiences tend to be suspicious of our motives and shockingly unaware of how we operate. That suggests that we don’t need to abandon our most cherished values; we just need to get them across better.

Joy Mayer, founder of the Trusting News Project, responded to this aspect of the Reuters research in a Medium post, writing (among many other useful suggestions): “If you work hard to be fair, consider articulating what fairness looks like for your newsroom. Get on the record about it. (Take inspiration from the San Diego Union-Tribune’s fairness checklist.) Then draw attention to that commitment day to day.”

Personal connections between individual journalists and their audience can build trust in ways that aren’t necessarily available to media brands. “[The research suggested] that people are much more willing to give individual journalists leeway,” said Toff. “Many are suspicious of the commercial and political agendas they see media institutions pursuing. It’s easier for individual journalists to build trust personally.”

It’s impossible to read the Reuters’ report and not conclude that it will take anything less than a generation for media to rebuild trust, if we can rebuild it at all. But it would also be wrong to conclude that there’s nothing we can do. Even the audiences addressed by the Reuters study—who are not, generally speaking, active seekers of accountability stories—recognize the importance of our role.

To reach them, though, we need to be aware of how they see us and to be humble in our approach. Margaret Talev[1], the long-time White House correspondent and Axios political editor who recently joined Syracuse University’s Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship Institute as director.  In a panel two days after the Reuters report Talev said “It’s not enough to tell people they should trust us because we’re good for them.” She said. “We need to meet people where they are and give them what they want.”

About the author

Eric Schurenberg is the founder of the Newsroom Trust Project, a research project seeking solutions to the erosion of trust in media, and the host of the podcast In Reality. Prior to that, Eric was the CEO of Mansueto Ventures, the owner of Inc. and Fast Company.

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