INTO THE ISSUES
Published March 20, 2023
The national headline on stories about the latest poll on the news media and democracy were about its finding that half of Americans believe national news organizations deliberately “mislead, misinform or persuade the public to adopt a particular point of view through their reporting,” as Associated Press media writer David Bauder put it. He added, “In one small consolation, Americans had more trust in local news.”
It wasn’t a small consolation for people in local news, but it also had some warnings, and offered the basis for some guidance.
The poll by Gallup Inc. for the Knight Foundation, of 5,593 Americans 18 and older between May 31 and July 21, 2022, found a much higher level of trust in local news organizations.
That was driven in large measure by a belief that local journalists care about the impact of their reporting; 53% in the poll agreed with that statement and only 19% disagreed with it. (The survey is at https://tinyurl.com/2eayncrw.)
Trust can be a hard thing to measure, because it is driven not just by facts, but by emotions, and the latter make it volatile. Research in news has shifted from issues of transparency and credibility to “the affective or emotional aspects of trust – that is, how trust in news is related to how people feel about news outlets,” Knight said.
The poll asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “In general, most national news organizations “care about how their reporting can either positively or negatively affect American society, culture and politics.” Only 35% agreed, while 43% disagreed.
But when the poll asked if most local news organizations “care about the best interests of their readers, viewers and listeners,” those polled said yes, by a margin of 2 to 1.
“Care” is the key word here. Care, like trust, reflects emotion. It calls to mind a quote used by many but most often attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt: “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
That’s always been good advice for politicians, but it’s also a good maxim for newspapers, which claim to know a lot but often fail to show they care. How do they do that?
“Emotional trust in news is driven by the belief that news organizations care, report with honest intentions and are reliable,” Knight said in reporting on its Gallup poll. And that can bridge political divides that are increasingly prevalent at the local level.
“Greater emotional trust in local news is consistent across various demographic groups,” Knight said. ”For example, 31% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats express high levels of emotional trust in local news — a narrower gap than with emotional trust in national news.”
So, Americans trust their local news organizations, but do they really know them?
The poll found that 65% agreed with this statement: “In general, most local news organizations have the resources and opportunity to report the news accurately and fairly to the public.” But the question left much to be desired; most Americans are not familiar with “most local news organizations,” so a better question would have asked about “your local news organizations.”
Many if not most of those organizations are unable to report as much news as they once did or would like to do. Accuracy and fairness are essential, but audiences notice gaps in coverage, and that could have been measured, too.
AP’s Bauder described one other hopeful finding: “If Americans believed local news organizations didn’t have the resources or opportunities to cover the news, they would be more likely to pay for it.” As Knight said, “Americans who think local news organizations lack the resources and opportunity to report the news accurately and fairly are more likely to pay for news. . . . These findings mirror previous Gallup/Knight research on local news, which found that Americans who are exposed to information about the financial challenges of local newspapers are more likely to donate to a nonprofit organization that supports local journalism.”
Knight says journalists need to go beyond emphasizing transparency and accuracy to show the impact of their reporting on the public. That recommendation is directed to national news organizations, but it’s good advice for local news organizations, too.
The poll reaffirms that they need to do that online, because that’s where most of the audience is. It found that 58% of Americans in mid-2022 reported getting most of their news online, up from 46% in 2019. Television was named by 31%, down 10 points from 2019. Only 3% named printed newspapers or magazines, down from 5%.
Another key finding, described by Bauder: “The ability of many people to instantly learn news from a device they hold in their hand, the rapid pace of the news cycle, and an increased number of news sources would indicate that more Americans are on top of the news than ever before. Instead, an information overload appears to have had the opposite effect. The survey said 61% of Americans believe these factors make it harder to stay informed, while 37% said it’s easier.”
That doesn’t differentiate between national and local news, but the poll seems to confirm a trend pointed out by many observers: People are paying less attention to local news than they once did. That is a civic tragedy, in an age where misinformation can drive local and state policymaking. But I think it also reflects confusion about the plethora of information sources – confusion that news providers must clear up.
Providers of local news must give people reasons to seek it out, by showing its importance to their lives; make it easy to do so, by using multiple platforms to reach the fractured audience; and make clear its value – with watchdog reporting that serves the public interest, opinion pages that operate on a higher level than social media, and editorial leadership that serves the community.
And news providers must help citizens grasp the differences in types of information. If I were running a local news outlet, I’d publish this every day: “We practice journalism, which is defined by a discipline of verification: We tell you how we know something, or we attribute it; and we’re mainly about facts, not opinion. Social media are mainly about opinion, and have little if any discipline or verification. Which should you trust?”
Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He directs the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism. It publishes The Rural Blog, from which this was adapted. For more information, write firstname.lastname@example.org.