Skip to main content

How Newsrooms Are Trying to Make the Media Great Again

Public opinion of the media is at an all-time low. How do outlets regain Americans' trust?
Rotting newspaper

For Lydia Chavez, a journalism professor at the University of California–Berkeley, Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election represented not just a shock to her political certitude, but also to her pedagogical sensibilities. In the months leading up to the election, Chavez had been planning a class trip in the spring semester to Cuba using the newly opened borders to examine an area of the world long hidden from American eyes. But after the election, Chavez shifted her focus.

"I kept thinking, why am I going to Cuba?" Chavez says. "We don't understand our own country."

The broad strokes of Chavez's new plan include taking her class to a "swing" or "red" state ("outside of the California bubble," she says), to learn what matters to citizens there. It's meant to give her students a wider collection of experiences from which to draw on, as well as getting them used to the process of providing news that's of immediate and direct importance to those living in a single particular location, as opposed to a constant focus on national concerns. That a visit to a neighboring state invites the same level of wide-eyed bewilderment as a trip to a nation that until recently was considered an antagonist says a lot about the state of American polarization.

This shift in thinking isn't just transpiring in college lecture halls, but also in real-life newsrooms. The Texas Tribune, a non-profit media organization in Texas, has, since the election, created its first-ever "community reporter" position. As described, this position would:

[G]o the extra mile, literally, to forge relationships with our readers all across this state, translating their feedback into stories produced by our awesome reporters. The new position will ensure that the voices of more Texans from more places inform our coverage. This reporter's beat will be *Texans*.

That this might sound like a novel approach to journalism gets to the heart of the "media bubble" problem.

"Isn't [the Texas Tribune position] what journalists should be doing already?" asks Amara Aguilar, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. "Shouldn't we be out in the community, capturing those voices and concerns? It's sad people feel that some of that's been lost."

This urgency for media outlets to regain the public's trust has been a long time coming. Studies show that the public's trust in media has eroded over the years. When Gallup first asked Americans their feelings on newspaper journalism, 39 percent reported to the pollster having a "great deal" of trust in the journalists. In 1979, that figure rose to 51 percent, no doubt influenced by the work of investigative journalists covering the Watergate scandal. In 2000, that trust dropped down to the high 30s; by 2005, it had plummeted to 28 percent, in large part due to the false reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Now, that trust has dipped even lower, all the way down to 20 percent.

Meanwhile, another Gallup poll from September shows trust in "mass media"—that is, television broadcasts, newspapers, even Internet sites that are linked to prestige journalism organizations—has dipped to a historic low of 32 percent. Gallup implicates the usual suspects in its explanation of the poor markings: political divisiveness, the rise of social media, the removal of gatekeepers to vet the accuracy of stories, and the monetary benefit that comes with pumping out opinion pieces over reported stories.

But there's also the possibility "the public" and "the media" simply aren't on the same page.

Last year, Tom Vos, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, interviewed a number of political journalists, as well as readers of the the journalists' respective publications. What he found was that the two entities—the media and the public—have different ways of looking at how the American democratic system should operate.

"I kept thinking, why am I going to Cuba? We don't understand our own country."

When interviewing the journalists, Vos found most had what he called an "elitist" view of democracy—that citizens should merely elect candidates every four years, then allow those officials to perform their jobs with little input. In the meantime, journalists would update the public on the political goings-on as to allow them to make more informed decisions during the next election. But, when interviewing the public, Vos found that they held a "populist" view of democracy, wanting the citizens to wield considerably more influence over the elected officials during their tenure in higher office.

Setting aside the merits of each political worldview—and what exactly led us to two dramatically different interpretations for the public's role in democracy—the point of Vos' research was simply to reveal the rift that had formed, to show the media and the public are not in sync.

"This [disconnect] not only has led to many readers being upset about the style, tone, and content of the news coverage, but also journalists appearing out-of-touch with their audience," Vos says. "While neither of these views about democracy are wrong, journalists need to do a better job of understanding their audiences so they can cover political issues better."

Vos found one potential cause of this disconnect to be a lack of diversity among sources interviewed in news reports. A 2016 study out of Finland, which ranks among the world's more progressive countries, showed that fewer than 30 percent of experts interviewed on TV were women. Meanwhile, the newsrooms themselves usually lack many minority voices; in a 2014 study, Poynter concluded that "the percentage of minorities in newsrooms is far smaller than their representation in the United States population."

One reason for the lack of diversity, both among the journalists and the sources they cite, is the lack of resources that has been allocated toward journalism. Fewer journalists trying to do more work at a quicker pace means falling back on shortcuts to get the job done in time. So, who they know, and who's willing to talk, often takes precedent over that person's credentials as an interview subject, or the ability to tackle a topic from a well-rounded collection of subjects.

Yet a solution to this disparity may be arriving from an unlikely place: News organizations of every sort are seeing massive spikes in subscriptions, viewership, and donations in our post-Trump era, and there are no signs of slowing down as long as the administration breaks new stories every few hours. Meaning, yes, there's a slight possibility that the president who proclaims every negative report about his administration as "fake news" will happen to, inadvertently, make the industry more trustworthy again.