The 32 Percent Project Wants to Rebuild Relationships Between News Organizations and Readers

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Two participants of the 32 Percent Project converse at a workshop in Pico Rivera, Calif. (Photo provided)

Trust in the media has been declining for some time now, and in the current media climate, the issue has become a full-blown crisis for the industry.

It was shortly after the 2016 election when Gallup released a poll illustrating that only 32 percent of Americans said they had a measure of trust in the news media. That figure prompted Todd Milbourn and Lisa Heyamoto, journalists and educators at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, to travel to several different communities across the country to hear it from the people themselves. Their findings became the basis for their report, “The 32 Percent Project,” which can be found at medium.com/the-32-percent-project.

Over the course of a year, Milbourn and Heyamoto visited four cities: Pico Rivera, Calif., Boston, Mass., Vienna, Ill. and Oxford, Miss. The cities were carefully selected based on geographic, economic, racial, political and rural divides to reflect the diversity of American communities.

Todd Milbourn (left) and Lisa Heyamoto (Photo by Bryan Rodriguez)

By posting on neighborhood event calendars, sending out fliers via local libraries and spreading the word at schools, churches and other community connectors, Milbourn and Heyamoto were able to recruit participants to attend workshops.

“We wanted to take the conversations outside of the realm of ‘Do you trust the media?’ frame,” Milbourn said. “So we asked questions like, ‘Think of a person or an organization that you trust, not a news organization or a source of information, just a person in your life or organization, and what makes them trustworthy?’”

From these conversations, Milbourn and Heyamoto identified six key themes: authenticity, transparency, consistency, positivity, diversity and shared mission. These are considered the “conditions of trust,” and the report concluded that those themes are critical factors that must be present for citizens to trust news organizations.

Heyamoto mentioned that one of the more surprising findings their project discovered was how little people know about the journalism process.

“As journalists, it makes a lot sense to us what we do. It seems obvious, but it really isn’t, and people have a thin understanding of how it works,” she said. “Overall, the journalist’s process is very opaque and people don’t trust the outcome if they don’t know the process.”

Milbourn added that journalism is currently being handled in a very transactional way, in which reporters just focus on simply getting the story, but people are hungry for news organizations that are rooted in communities. The path to repairing trust between journalism and consumer may be found in nurturing that relationship.

Since the report came out last summer, Milbourn and Heyamoto have traveled to media conferences, sharing their work with journalists who have excitedly promised to take the information back to their newsrooms. Their hope is that news organizations take their findings and apply them to what they do in a way that helps their communities.

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