Stop pretending media trust issue is only a problem for national news outlets

A sweeping new Pew Center report that examines trust in the media confirmed an uneasy truth that we can no longer ignore. It’s not just that our readers don’t trust us. They think we are unethical.

And like everything else in America right now, it’s a partisan truth.

According to the analysis, Republicans consistently express far greater skepticism of the news and their motives than Democrats. About a third of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say journalists have “very low” ethical standards, roughly six times the 5% of Democrats and Democratic-leaners who say this. Those who support President Donald Trump are even more skeptical: 40% of Republicans who strongly approve of Trump’s job performance say journalists’ ethics are that low. “Overall, this relationship between support for Trump and depressed trust in the news media persists over a range of attitudes,” according to the report. “And, taken together, Republicans who are most approving of Trump and Democrats who are least approving of him stand far apart from each other.”

(Photo by Patrick Thibodeau via Flickr)

The more politically engaged people are, the more they read and watch the news, the starker the divide is. Highly politically aware Republicans are 14 percentage points more likely than those who are less engaged to think that journalists have low or very low ethics (87% versus 73%). Highly engaged Democrats have greater confidence. That means the more people read and watch the news, the more likely they are to dig in to their previously held beliefs. That’s deeply troubling even if we get higher marks from Democrats.

It’s troubling because America is at war with us. The wife of a Georgia county commissioner is facing criminal charges after allegedly pouring a drink on a reporter at a public meeting in December. In the same month, a TV reporter in Florida was knocked to the ground while doing a story, and a reporter in Georgia was assaulted by a youth pastor. In 2019, 36 journalists faced physical attacks in the US, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, led by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalist. Nearly all of the incidents involved community journalists covering local stories. We can’t dismiss this as CNN’s problem or The Washington Post’s problem when local reporters, far from the national spotlight, are getting attacked.

We’ve failed to convince–and counter the president’s message of disdain for us, that journalists are central to a democracy.That means we’re not going to have the public’s support when we confront the school board or the town commission. 

The Pew report is sobering but also helps us understand which segment of our population has a problem with what we do.

Rural residents tend to be more skeptical of news organizations and journalists than urban residents, with suburban residents falling somewhere in between. Only about half (48%) of rural residents have a great deal or fair amount of confidence that journalists will “act in the best interests of the public.” Put aside the impeachment coverage. This means that half of our rural readers are not likely to trust us when we expose corruption in our local governments or try to hold the school superintendent accountable.  (As another study from the Knight Foundation and Gallup found last year, Americans trust local news more than national organizations, but that trust is i.)

Black Americans generally have higher support for and trust in the news media than Hispanic Americans, especially white Americans, according to the Pew report. White evangelical protestants tend to be less supportive of the news media than protestants other protestants, Catholics and religiously unaffiliated Americans. 

So what do we do with all of this?

We stop pretending that it’s the national media’s problem. It’s not. It’s all of our problem if local reporters are getting attacked. It’s all of our problems if readers don’t take our consumer reporting and our watchdog reporting seriously, if the public doesn’t stand with us when we ask the tough questions and try to get answers on their behalf.

We can’t be afraid to confront this, to defend ourselves in print or in community gatherings in which we invite the public, our neighbors, in for coffee to try to understand their concerns and try to explain how we do our jobs. 

We need to be extra vigilant about making sure that our reporters and editors, that any of the journalists who work for us, keep their personal opinions off of social media. We need to go out of our way to present ourselves as objective. We need to continue to stand up for what’s right, to point out what’s wrong, to be the voice for marginalized members of our community.

We need to keep reminding people that we are not partisan. As a journalism professor, I stress this repeatedly with my students. Journalists love catching a politician in a lie. We don’t care about political party. We care about truth. 

But in a deeply divided America, we’ve allowed our haters to tell our narrative, to shape it to fit what they think the news is, what they think our job is, what they think of the questions we ask.

We need to tell our own story. We need to do before any more reporters get hurt. 

This story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner. 

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