Friday, February 10, 2017

With trust in the news media at an all-time low, it's affecting even rural and community journalists

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
Extension professor of journalism, University of Kentucky

Trust in "the mass media, such as newspapers, TV and radio" in polls taken by the Gallup Organization is at 32 percent, the lowest ever. A Feb. 5-6 Emerson College poll of registered voters, weighted to reflect turnout in the 2016 election, found them evenly divided about the Trump administration's truthfulness, but by 53 to 39 percent, they considered the news media untruthful.

The Pew Research Center found in early 2016 that there was little difference in the trust of local and national news outlets. About 22 percent of Americans said they trust local news outlets a lot, and 18 percent said that of national news sources. Sixty percent and 59 percent said they trust local news an national news only somewhat. Recently, rural and community journalists have voiced concern that the attacks on "big media" are hurting "little media," too.

One is Mark Smith, editor of the Davenport Times in Lincoln County, Washington, just west of Spokane, who was a minister for 14 years. He told columnist Sue Lani Madsen of The Spokesman-Review that the current atmosphere reminds him of the 1980s scandals involving televangelists, which "forced him to defend his profession at a local level," Madsen writes, quoting him: “There is the same sense now that if one media source is bad, they all are.”

Madsen says she trusts Smith "because I know him as a member of the community, but once we move beyond the hyperlocal news of a rural county, how do we know whom to trust? . . . He believes he’ll weather the fake news and biased media storm because he’s built relationships in the community to establish trust and credibility. There’s an accountability that comes from being a visible presence at the local city council meeting or high school sports events. People feel free to let you know face to face if they have a complaint."

Community journalists know that, but Smith felt it in a more meaningful way of it last summer, when he "had serious health issues last summer that delayed production of the paper," Madsen writes. "He wrote about it frankly and discovered how deep those community relationships had become. . . . He was warmly surprised at how people sought him out to wish him well."

“I used to only hear from people when they wanted to point out a flaw,” Smith told Madsen. “Writing about my heart attack humanized me in some people’s eyes.”

Madsen notes, "It’s tougher to build trust and credibility, to make that human connection, as the circle gets larger. The chance that you’ll know one of the reporters of your regional newspaper, television or radio station becomes remote. Spokane journalists are grappling with breaking down the barriers using social media."

That's an important device, because social media have become the dominant source of information for most Americans, not counting the traditional media stories they pass along. But social media are largely unfiltered, and lack the verification procedures of journalism (with the very limited exceptions of Google banning fake-news publishers from its AdSense network and Facebook limiting its Trending Topics box to matters covered by a significant number of credible publishers).

Verification is one of the essential elements that distinguish journalism from other types of information. "Its essence is a discipline of verification," Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach wrote in The Elements of Journalism, a book recently revised and updated with material on social media, the challenges facing print journalism, and "how journalism can fulfill its purpose in the digital age."

The other elements, in some cases better called principles, say journalism has truth as its first obligation and citizens as its first loyalty; that it must be an independent monitor of power and provide a forum for criticism and compromise; that it should keep significant information interesting and relevant, and make news coverage comprehensive and proportional; and that journalists must have a sense of ethics and be allowed to exercise their conscience. Kovach and Rosenstiel also say citizens have rights and responsibilities when using media, especially verifying what they pass along.

The latter point is unlikely to get much adherence, but it and the other elements provide a basis for journalists and the public to better understand each other's roles. That appears to be more important than ever, everywhere.

"Trump's anti-journalism rhetoric gives license to such behavior at the local level," Ohio University journalism professor Bill Reader writes on the Hotline of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. "When you hear people in city halls and courthouses of rural America saying 'all journalists are scum,' that just sets up a situation that is harmful for all involved, and could very well lead to government engaging in misinformation, obstructionism, even open harassment of their local news media."

In the mountains of Southern California, at Frazier Park, The Mountain Enterprise and The New Mountain Pioneer are dealing with residents "associated with a Property Owners Association of about 3500 people—a full-on village— trying to mirror our President Trump's ploys to shut down media reporting and try to divert attention away from their own deeds by attacking the local media," Managing Editor Patric Hedlund writes in an email.

"I even gave one woman a two-page op-ed to make her case about 'fake news.' And jumping on the bandwagon, the general manager of the POA is trying to end-run and game us now. He waits until I've asked my questions—he'll only accept them by email—and then loiters in his reply until he knows we've had to go to press, then puts out a 'press release' via email blast to residents to attack the newspaper."

Of course, Hedlund writes, "It is only through the newspaper that residents are being able to make their voices heard definitively about the effort to build a $7 million new clubhouse, which the residents will be paying for with increased assessments … and which the majority of people do not want. So the debate is raging via op-eds and LTEs in the newspaper, while the POA board is trying to extinguish all discussion and dissent. Which is why they are seeking to get people to ostracize those who ask critical questions, including the newspaper."

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