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A Challenging Time To Trust The News

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
In these days of bitterly divided politics, we are always looking for lessons on how we can better reach out to our readers to improve their belief that we can be fair and trustworthy.

Generally, community newspapers are the most trusted source of news for their readers when it comes to local reporting. Our stories of the actions of local governments, what is happening in the community, and feature stories are seen as fair and accurate.

It is our editorial pages that can get us in trouble. Not so much when we editorialize on local topics such as a tax levy to support education, or the need for better child care in our communities, or the importance of good healthcare facilities. It is when we touch on national topics such as the fairness of elections, the quality of candidates or political parties, voting rights, or equal rights for all groups of citizens that we run into deep and sometimes bitter divisions.

That is why a recent article published by an organization called “Trusting News” caught our attention.

“At Trusting News, rather than accepting distrust in journalism, we work to better understand it so we can help journalists actively earn trust. We believe healthy democracies depend on civic dialogue and a shared set of facts. We also believe local news can play an especially important role in bridging conversations across political divides,” reporter Lynn Walsh writes in a story about showing how “journalists can connect with conservatives and right-leaning audiences.”

Her story was based on a study Trusting News did with the Center for Media Engagement that looked into what is behind distrust in the news and how to address it.

“The research suggests journalists can help bridge the divide between the news media and conservative, right-leaning audiences by listening and building relationships with conservatives in their community, avoiding catch-all labels and over-generalizations, focusing on facts, correcting mistakes, and paying attention to the political beliefs and backgrounds of newsroom staff,” she writes.

We know from other surveys and studies we’ve read that Democrats and those who lean left have a broader trust in a variety of news outlets while those who lean right or identify as Republicans trust few sources.

“And while trust in local news is higher than trust in national news — even among conservatives — local journalists say they feel like they’re facing an uphill battle to demonstrate their credibility and ethics,” the Walsh writes.

As it gathered the information for their survey, Trusting News and the Center for Media Engagement conducted many in-depth interviews with journalists across the country. Those journalists provided the researchers feedback from their conservative and right-leaning viewers, listeners, and readers on why they distrusted the media.

From what they gathered, they laid out six “approaches journalists can take to better connect with their conservative and right-leaning audiences:

- Build relationships with people who have conservative and right-leaning viewpoints in your community and listen to them.

- Include a variety of voices from people with conservative and right-leaning views in stories. Journalists should be cautious of using “conservative” or other terms as catch-all labels for people who may have very different beliefs.

- Consider the diversity of political beliefs and backgrounds when hiring for the newsroom.

- Focus on story facts, not interpretation.

- Correct mistakes promptly to demonstrate trustworthiness.

- Don’t criticize only one side of an issue.

“Some of the journalists who conducted the interviews were surprised to hear the extent to which perceptions of their work were affected by perceptions of the national news they carry,” Walsh writes. “But many were not.”

We are among this latter group. We have seen the heavy focus in people’s lives on watching the national news and following it on social media. That bitter tension that colors national news filters down to the local level. There is little patience, or tolerance, for differing points of view these days on the big national and state topics.

Another theme throughout the interviews was how conservatives see themselves reflected in news stories. Walsh writes that “according to the research, ‘multiple interview participants said they felt that media portrayals of conservatives seem to rely on narrow or extreme stereotypes, which they felt assume conservatives are racist, uneducated, unkind, or only care about money.’”

This sentiment isn’t just the perception of those right of center. Most rural residents feel as if the national media treats us with condescension.

A news director for a Cincinnati television station said that he had heard many news consumers say journalists “paint conservatives all as Trumpers who are racists and bad people.” We know many Republicans who did not support Trump but hold fast to their conservative ideals. Even in our local reporting or column writing, we must not fall into the trap of identifying all conservatives or Republicans as identifying with one politician or one particular stand. The same applies to those left of the center. They are not all Sen. Bernie Sanders fans.

The study found that another source of conservative and right-leaning citizen distrust of national and state media based in larger urban areas is that they don’t have reporters who live among us.

To understand rural people, their frustrations, their needs, and where they feel the government is letting them down, you have to have writers who live among them.

We can’t lay all the blame on the regional metropolitan and East Coast media for a distrust in the news. Awareness that fairness and balance are needed is a challenge even at the local level that we agree must be sought and provided. Another challenge is sifting through all misinformation that spreads to easily and is taken fact by too many. We seek to provide both sides of an issue that informs, not misleads, our readers.

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