The former president of the United States called us “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.” Talk radio hosts falsely parrot claims of “liberal media bias.” Right-wing media figures have flooded the public square with misinformation on everything from the outcome of the election to the effectiveness of wearing a face mask.
Mistrust of journalists seems to be everywhere these days. If people aren’t chanting “CNN sucks!” at political rallies, they’re bombarding reporters’ social media accounts with comments so vile they’d make Quentin Tarantino blush.
With surveys regularly showing widespread distrust of the media, it’s easy to point all the blame at bad faith actors chipping away trust from so-called mainstream news outlets for their own partisan and financial gain. But the trust deficit runs far deeper and is more widespread than a couple of Twitter accounts and some opinion hosts on Fox News.
Enter the Trust in News Project, a three-year effort by the Reuters Institute for Journalism at the University of Oxford to study and offer solutions to newsrooms attempting to overcome the growing and, at times, longstanding mistrust of media companies.
For their first report, which was published in December, researchers gathered data and opinions about eroding trust from more than 80 journalists working at news outlets in the United States, Brazil, India, and the U.K.
The major takeaway? There is no single trust in news problem.
“There is a segment of the audience for whom this is really about partisanship in politics, and people are probably not going to change their minds.” said Benjamin Toff, who leads the Trust in News Project and was a co-author of the report. “But there are other segments of the audience where people sort of have a sense that news organizations, for a long time, have done a very bad job of covering particular communities, or covered them in ways that are really stigmatizing.”
This shouldn’t really be news to anyone with a press badge. For years, newsrooms filled with mostly white men in prominent roles of leadership have long overlooked minority communities in the heart of their coverage areas in favor of their more affluent white neighbors in the suburbs. Not surprisingly, this has solidified a mistrust of those same institutions among Black and brown readers who have turned to other outlets—including social media and platforms like WhatsApp—to fill the gap.
Toff said there was certainly recognition of the problem among newsroom staffers in the U.S. he spoke with. It’s especially true in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, where journalists of color across the country (including at the Philadelphia Inquirer where I work) forced their newsrooms to look inward at their own coverage and how it might be driving away readers in minority communities.
For some news outlets, the first step may be simply owning up to their past mistakes. In December, the Kansas City Star published a front page apology in the Sunday paper for having “disenfranchised, ignored and scorned generations” of Black residents for decades, robbing “an entire community of opportunity, dignity, justice and recognition.”
That followed a similar apology by the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, who blamed its historically biased coverage on a lack of diversity in the newsroom and called it “an institution deeply rooted in white supremacy” for at least its first 80 years.
With the help of the civic organization City Bureau, nonprofit news outlet Mississippi Today decided to organize “public newsrooms” where readers could meet with journalists to listen, offer feedback, and build relationships with one another. The events have helped the small newsroom build trust with residents of the Mississippi Delta, whom historically have felt misrepresented by larger media outlets.
Beyond politics and race, Toff said his conversations with journalists also pointed him to the opinion page, which readers still manage to have a hard time differentiating from a newspaper’s straight reporting. Part of the blame goes to social media, where all content is displayed with such uniformity it’s easy for readers to conflate the two.
“Labeling is the least of the challenges,” Toff said. “The other challenge is how difficult it is to get people to actually engage with the labeling you’re trying to offer if they’re just scrolling past your headline in their Facebook feed.”
Toff said one newspaper that’s attempting to deal with that problem is The Tennessean. Speaking to David Plazas, the opinion and engagement director for Gannett’s Tennessee newsrooms, Toff said the paper has adopted a strategy of turning to different voices in the community to avoid making readers feel like all its opinions are simply being handed down by the newspaper’s editorial staff.
Some newspapers, such as the Providence Journal have decided to eliminate nameless editorials in favor of more local columns. Other newspapers, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have ended the practice of endorsing political candidates, fearing readers could assume the organization’s political coverage is biased.
“Readers live in a media world where they’re shouted at by talk radio, they’re harangued by bipartisan network news. Even on Facebook, their friends are bugging them about their opinions on candidates,” Journal-Constitution editor Kevin Riley said during an interview on WNYC’s On the Media. “When they pick up their newspaper, what they want is a thoughtful, insightful experience that helps them make their decisions.”
Toff said it’s too early for his project to offer concrete steps newsrooms can take if they’re looking to rebuild trust in the community. But he did say that in several of his conversations across multiple countries, a small amount of customer service paid big dividends.
For example, he mentioned an off-the-record interview with one evening reporter who called a reader every night with the local high school football team results after they were removed from the paper due to cutbacks.
“It had a huge impact on his view of the news organization,” Toff said. “It’s that kind of human connection I think people don’t expect from news organization, but many people we talked to really felt like it was extremely valuable.”
Want to offer your thoughts about trust in media? You can reach out to researchers by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at email@example.com.