In rural communities divided by polarizing issues like health crises and politics, what does it mean for the relationship between journalists and their readers? While a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found 65% of nearly 12,000 journalists thought the media performed well in accurately “covering the most important stories of the day,” only 35% of the public agreed.
Unfortunately, this disconnect is the result of long-term erosion.
“It was becoming more and more clear that more of the people who engaged with us had sort of a baseline distrust,” said Joy Mayer, founder of Trusting News. Mayer spent two decades in newsrooms and classrooms educating journalists before her increasing interest in trust – and how it’s both gained and lost – catalyzed the start of her organization in 2016.
“Journalists were feeling really discouraged and hopeless,” she said. “Our goal at Trusting News is about empowering journalists to do something about it.”
Lesson number one is humility.
“One of the first things my kids learned in middle school media literacy is to question,” Mayer said. But instead of demonstrating what makes their work credible, journalists often “get frustrated and throw up our hands,” Mayer said.
Sometimes the mistrust journalists experience is from basic misunderstandings of what is an opinion and what is a news story.
“We focus a lot on things like proper labeling of opinion coverage,” Mayer said. Otherwise, readers may not understand that a piece is intended to convey an opinion – not both sides of an issue. Confusion also stems from the use of journalism jargon, the selection of one source over another, or the why an anonymous source is used, which, in fact, is practiced infrequently outside of Washington, D.C.
To coach journalists around common problem areas, Trusting News provides workshops and classes for journalists and works one-on-one with newsrooms. While journalists feel the urgency around this work, newsrooms are strapped for resources and often have a hard time prioritizing it.
Mayer gives the example of a heated comment thread on social media in response to a story.
“You can ignore that, or you can spend some time actually responding to people,” Mayer said.
It might require responding to comments that feel untrue or inflammatory, “but it’s important because you’re not just responding to the angry person but to everyone that’s reading,” she said.
Once in the habit and in possession of language to do it well, it becomes easier. “It’s like a muscle we just don’t flex,” she said.
The Day of New London, Connecticut, is one of the newsrooms that works with Trusting News on these practices. Peter Huoppi, director of multimedia, first encountered Mayer when she spoke at the University of Missouri while he was earning his master’s degree.
“All of the issues she talked about really rang true to me, and she mentioned that they were always looking for newsroom partners,” he said.
Since then, The Day has tapped resources and frameworks from Trusting News and participated in research to develop new strategies.
“I think one of the issues that we’ve been working through is the political divide in our audience,” Huoppi said.
Among conservative, right-leaning leaders, the newsroom is considered too liberal, and, in the past, journalists were defensive about this.
“The conversation wouldn’t really go anywhere,” Huoppi said.
However, through surveys, outreach, online chats, and extended interviews, “We’ve come to understand the perception of people in our audience and tried to look a little bit more critically at the way we do things,” Huoppi said.
One of the hottest issues is tied to national wire content from sources like the Associated Press and Washington Post, which offer national and international news services that news organizations pay for and use to augment local coverage.
“It’s been a personal frustration of mine to look at my 30 colleagues in the newsroom who spend every day working on covering the local community and that so many of the complaints and criticisms come with the content we’re not producing,” Huoppi said.
However, readers appreciate being able to get both national and local news in one place, so eliminating wire content is not a solution. Instead, The Day has focused on a more careful selection of wire stories and looked more closely at the language used in political reporting at the national level.
Huoppi’s newsroom was able to bring their language concerns to a group of Associated Press editors from Washington, and while change hasn’t happened overnight, he hopes it’s the start of a larger conversation.
Mayer also wants to open a dialogue about who America’s journalists are as human beings and how they can differ from the communities they serve. In the case of national news, according to Pew, one-in-five U.S. newsroom employees live in New York, Los Angeles, or D.C.
“Journalists have a lot of experiences in common and lack a lot of experiences their communities have. This can lead to blind spots,” Mayer said.
Trusting News has developed a hiring guide to help newsrooms combat this through diverse hiring practices.
Individual journalists can also change the conversation by connecting.
“You can’t have too many conversations or too much outreach with people in your community,” Huoppi said.
Huoppi recently directed and co-produced a documentary called Those People, with members of his community. The project covered a talent show created to give youth an outlet for expression after six teens murdered a young man named Matthew Chew.
In the film’s interviews, which covered race, violence within the community, and policing, many were reluctant to speak with Huoppi.
“I’m very aware of my identity as a white, suburban man coming to speak to people of color from the city about their experiences,” he said.
But by involving more people in the journalism process, “I think we told a more powerful and honest story in the end,” Huoppi said.
While a collaborative approach like this isn’t right for every news story, it is a creative opportunity to engage voices that might otherwise go unheard.
“I’d like to hold this up as an example of ways we can build more trust with the people that we cover,” Huoppi said.
Caroline Tremblay is a freelance writer and assists in the news coverage of Radically Rural, a two-day summit on key rural issues, September 21-22, in Keene, New Hampshire. www.radicallyrural.org