Our Weapon Against Distrust

How we all benefit from a more engaged, approachable media landscape

By: Francesca Mathewes

Whether we as journalists wish to admit it or not, our work is all consuming. Between the often long and irregular workdays, the pervasive nature of social media and the immediacy and relevancy wrapped into nearly everything we do, it becomes easy to feel like “the news” is synonymous with “the universe.” Sourcing, writing, fact-checking and editing feel like muscle memory, obvious processes in the work of truth-telling. We spend years committing ethics and principles of free speech and accuracy to heart –– there is a deep sense of honor and passion that every journalist I know carries with them.

So, it was a bit jarring to learn that most Americans –– 78 percent according to a 2019 Pew Research poll –– have never spoken to or been interviewed by a local journalist. It made me think anecdotally about conversations I have had with friends and family about what I do. Aside from my partner, who stopped journalism in high school, I don’t know if I have any friends who could confidently explain how I approach writing a story. Most of the people I know who have been interviewed by reporters were connected to those journalists by myself or another colleague, and despite my casual rantings and ravings about the legitimacy of certain publications and my constant suggestions of ‘who to follow’ on Twitter, I’ve heard people close to me refer to “the media” in complaints about coverage of the presidential election or metro news.

It perplexes me –– how can the collective media landscape be more diverse and fragmented than ever before, but media literacy be so low? How can we as journalists combat the uphill battle against “fake news,” and the ease of lumping outlets across all mediums together into large accusations of distrust?

I don’t have all of the answers and you’ll never please everyone –– but I think that bringing journalists –– from network affiliates to small online publications alike  –– more face to face with community members and creating more built-in engagement are some crucial steps in the right direction.

Newsrooms can start by asking some important questions internally, first. Although American trust in ‘the media’ was down to 41 percent in a 2019 Gallup poll, that’s not zero –– who are your most loyal subscribers? On what platforms do they listen the most frequently and for the longest? What are you doing to keep the subscribers you have, and what reservations do they still have about news?

Understanding what is working about your newsroom’s connection to its audience and who is tuning in regularly is the first step in understanding who isn’t and why. It could be that some groups aren’t tuning in or logging on to outlets where they feel misrepresented or left out altogether, or perhaps have a negative historical relationship with media that has been left unreckoned with. Perhaps it comes down to more practical issues of access –– Internet connection, cable, time to tune into a show.

It will take time, effort and (when possible) financial investment into the sort of analytical tools needed to have a newsroom that has a data-driven understanding of where it’s just not meeting people. But I believe it’s worth it –– to assume you know what’s working and what’s not is just as heinous as assuming a story before you’ve set out to interview. And if we need a reminder of the danger of a media mistrust problem in this country, the past four years under President Donald Trump and his campaign against media outlets should serve as a warning for the future.

Make no mistake –– trust is still earned, not calculated. It is a complicated human emotion, not a data point. Investing resources in identifying areas where audience trust might falter is the first step towards (re)building relationships with those audiences.

Embracing audience engagement has not only proved to increase the stability and improve the future of online business for already-well established publications like The New York Times in their “2020 Plan,” but can also expand coverage to be inclusive of communities of color, particularly in newsrooms with white leadership (many of them).

This isn’t about letting audiences “drive” 100 percent of the coverage. Journalists, at the end of the day, are trained with an editorial eye that enables us to make final calls about what is pursuable about a story and what isn’t. But to continue to make assumptions, and often miss, about who our audiences are and what questions they have, will be our downfall.

Once the gaps are identified, there are near infinite ways to let people in. Block Club Chicago, an online publication with a strong local readership, has a tip line front and center on their website and note at the top of each article the reporting techniques used in the story to increase credibility. Their reporters are embedded in communities they report on, assigned to neighborhood beats where they are able to get news about local businesses opening, conflict with aldermen and the trials and triumphs of people who live and work every day in the city’s neighborhoods.

Other publications, like Chicago Reader and City Bureau host regular events like Second Tuesday and the monthly Public Newsrooms series, which allows publications to join arms with community organizations, activists, teachers and other people who normally serve as sources in order to bring stories to life. This is all about creating more and more avenues for the reader to enter your newsrooms and to engage with the story. It gives citizens –– avid readers or not –– a chance to meet face to face with reporters and understand more about what we do, revealing that we are not anonymous masterminds behind the mask of “the media” at large.

This of course, can all require more funding, I can’t ignore that. Not every newsroom has the spare staff or spare time to be doing things that aren’t direct content production. But creating more sustained opportunities for engagement whenever available –– be that surveys, webinars, newsletters or neighborhood events –– we can expand the reach of journalism and fold more people into the conversation. It can strengthen subscriber bases and solidify the importance our craft amongst the public.  It can be a process that happens alongside communities rather than aside or above them, hidden downtown and seen only on live broadcasts.

If we want to bolster public trust and ensure the professions’ survival, it’s time for every publication to integrate engagement as a more serious part of what they do.


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