Thursday, January 06, 2022

News outlets must rebuild trust through social media and other channels that reach people not in their audiences

A root cause of the division in America today is its fractured media environment. We naturally gravitate to sources of information that confirm rather than challenge our beliefs, and many Americans have given up on traditional journalism as a source of information. That is happening even in rural journalism, as we watch the circulation and household penetration of most non-metropolitan newspapers decline, and news outlets struggle to restore trust.

"There are countless efforts to increase trust in news. Few have reached beyond existing readers and likely subscribers to the truly skeptical," The Poynter Institute headlines a piece by its media business analyst, Rick Edmonds. He draws on a study of news media in the U.S., the United Kingdom, India and Brazil by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford in England.

Edmonds writes that news media are focused on "retaining subscribers or broadcast audiences, often paired with adding a new paid digital base, according to the report. That means 'few individual news organizations have clear incentives for investing in building trust with indifferent, skeptical, or outright hostile parts of the public.' In addition, few of the organizations with trust-building initiatives 'can point to systematic efforts for tracking their effectiveness.'"

The few include The New York Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Paul Volpe, head of the "trust team" at the Times, told Edmonds that he agrees with the Reuters study that there are “hardcore loyalists who already believe you” and the “unconvertible who never will.” Edmonds says the Times is trying to define a "middle group who might be those who do not yet know what to think." Volpe told him, “Maybe it’s a younger audience, maybe it’s someone who’s not exposed as much to media,” but can be identified and reached through social media comments.

Suki Dardarian, senior managing editor and vice president of The Star Tribune, has a similar view: “If they’re older, disinterested people, how hard do I have to work to get those people, when I have a bunch of younger people coming in who might be more interested? Like, I’m not saying I’m writing them off, but you know, if I have to make some choices …” She said readers have expressed interest in uplifting stories, "so The Star Tribune has markedly upped its storytelling about faith, religion and spirituality," Edmonds writes. "An annual feature about lifestyle challenges, like cutting back on sugar or improving sleep, prompted the creation of a community format on those topics which has attracted thousands of comments."

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute, offered other ideas through Edmonds:

  • “Familiarity does not breed contempt, and that’s quite encouraging,” he said. Outlets should not be reticent to “show the value of their work.” They “should be as clear as possible about the mission of the organization,” particularly in an era where large segments of the public suspect hidden agendas. “You need to have ideals. Say it and then show it.”
  • Many of the best digital startups are explicit about their mission and editorial standards. Many newspapers, by contrast, “may be 100 years old, but it is easy to forget that, especially among a community of younger readers, what you stand for may not be known.”
  • Outlets need to face facts about what they think about alternate trust strategies: “No one can do everything,” but it has been easy to back into a narrow approach without much reflection. They could borrow a page from the playbook of successful politicians, Nielsen said: “You do one set of things to energize the base and another to reach the undecideds.”

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