A significant political story is breaking in a community. A reporter gathers the facts, conducts interviews, seeks comment from the parties involved and goes back over her work, checking every facet of the story for accuracy. She has emails and proof on video. Her meticulous reporting ensures that elected officials in her community are held to account for their claims and actions, but what happens when, despite her Holmesian attention to detail, the public doesn’t believe the story? More broadly, what happens when news, namely local news, doesn’t align with the preexisting beliefs of readers? And what role does social media play?
In a perfectly rational version of the world, this wouldn’t happen. We’d evaluate the evidence and come to a conclusion. Even if we held some belief prior to receiving new information, we as dispassionate beings, would incorporate it into our thinking and adjust our opinions. But, that’s not how the world works. Our beliefs and preconceptions do serve a useful purpose — they provide us with shortcuts to making some judgments or decisions. At the same time, they can lead us astray of the facts and shared reality.
We are confronted with a particularly potent problem when some sources of information make it more convenient to seal ourselves off in our own preferred ideological bubbles. Local news is not immune. While some topics, like little league scores and community events generate little controversy, coverage of local government and politics has the capacity to ignite as much furor as national politics.
That is why trust matters. There is a certain symbiosis to the relationship between news and government. When journalists hold government and politicians to account, it maintains faith amongst the public that institutions still work. When trust in journalism breaks down, however, the whole system suffers.
Trust in the news media has been in steady decline for decades. The rise of partisan-tilted cable news, and now, the internet have made it easier to fall back on our own assumptions and beliefs about the world without challenge. When information does create friction with our preconceptions, there is an increasing impulse to shoot the messenger — the media.
Some messengers have proven more resilient than others. For example, Poynter’s 2018 Media Trust Survey found widespread public trust in local television news and newspapers, while seeing a modest uptick in trust of media overall. The problem is, newsrooms at local and regional papers have been cut or have disappeared altogether, leaving large swaths of the country without local news.
Enter Online News
Online local news outlets are well-poised to fill the void, but in many respects, we’re starting from behind. Digital-first outlets get lower marks on trust than print outlets. According to the Poynter survey, 47% of Americans trust online news versus 73% who trust their local newspapers. Why is this?
The rise of the internet has given anyone with a smartphone or access to WiFi a platform to disseminate ideas whether on social media, the comments section or a blog. This has provided society with some benefit but has also created a challenging situation for objective, non-ideological online news media that have grown up in a landscape where consumers of news are required to sift through and evaluate more information than ever before. What neighbors are saying on a Facebook Group or content on a blog that has a very specific editorial viewpoint can carry equal weight to a well-reported story on an objective local news site.
Meanwhile, social media, which is not considered a publisher — but in many ways plays the role — has less obligation to fact-check posts like a news organization does, which can amplify the ideological content that empowers those commenting while providing inadequate tools for a legitimate news publisher to be heard above the cacophony and adequately address the commenters.
To avoid the scenario at the beginning of this post, it’s incumbent upon news organizations, institutions and tech platforms to work to address the trust gap.
What Can Be Done
News organizations, particularly local news outlets, need to do a better job of educating the public about what objective journalism entails. The public should have a better understanding of how reporting is done and what editorial standards are in place. At TAPinto we’ve employed a transparent and iterative process to ensure all of our sites are putting out objective, well-reported journalism. When we have fallen short — every news organization has — we have been clear about acknowledging the gaps and quickly addressed them. We must earn the trust of the public, not expect it.
From an education perspective, there are some outstanding programs aimed at educating the public in the business of news-gathering. The University of Missouri and the American Press Institute run a program that coaches news journalists on how to build trust in their communities. Some school districts have introduced media literacy programs to give students the tools they need to critically evaluate information and news. These are important steps, however we as a society need to do more to empower citizens through building trust.
Tech giants, like Facebook and Google, have taken steps to bolster local news, but again we need to do more. The algorithms that drive consumption of and engagement with information on these platforms can, unfortunately, push misinformation, intentional or otherwise, to the top of the feed without the ability for publishers to effectively moderate the conversation, creating a snowball effect. Tech platforms also need to take far more responsibility for the content it allows to be published on its platform than it currently does. Social media is a powerful tool, but a robust and enduring dialogue is also needed with local news publishers to truly understand the dynamics on the ground.
The scenario at the beginning of this post, far from being fiction, is a composite of experiences we’ve had at TAPinto. We’ve reported on stories that some segments of the public and public officials do not like or do not fit with preexisting beliefs. And we’ve been victims of ill-informed maelstroms on social media that know few boundaries.
To borrow from Orwell, without a solid foundation of trust in journalism it makes it easier for those in power to tell us “reject the evidence of our eyes and ears.” These are the stakes.