local media insider

In the future, trust will be earned

It's up to local media to educate their audience


We’ve all met her. The otherwise educated woman in my tennis doubles group who passionately believes vaccinations are a plot by Bill Gates and Dr. Fauci to reduce the world population. 

The information is so important, so vital to our very survival, that she has to share that  “you can’t get it in the mainstream media. You have to know where to go...” 

And it's not just her and your crazy uncle.  A majority of Republicans mistakenly think the 2020 election was not  legitimate. For those of us who spent a career in journalism-based media, the trust challenge seems increasingly urgent.  

Why is trust so important to local media? First of all, it is the critical ingredient of information that people are will to pay for; the more media rely on subscriptions, the more financially critical it is that the market perceives their news as credible.

Second, the media's status as a credible local source provides the 'halo" effect that advertisers want. 

Finally,  the goodwill around the local media's role as a community service is essential to local government decisions such as public notice requirements, newsbox placement regulations, or even the decision to answer a reporter's phone call. Institutional credibility as a news provider underpins the new rounds of non-profit funding from local foundations may local newspapers will rely on this year and into the future. 

Fortunately, local media are still trust leaders among the various media types. The bad news is that trust in local media is also eroding,  as the damage from cable news leaks into the local water supply.

Fortunately, there are a variety of initiatives on hand to help locals differentiate between a merely free press and a credible one.

According to Sally Lehrman, founder of the Trust Project, initiatives to combat fake news falls into two main trends. 

The first trend involves the battle of disinformation: Fact-checkers, lawsuits, and big technology banning the bad actors. 

The second trend includes attempts to elevate “quality media”, such as The Trust Project which labels trusted media with a “T” and requires additional transparency about journalism standards, and media literacy programs. 

Newsguard attempted an initiative that fell somewhere in-between, by giving a nutritional label to both good and bad actors. It also fell short, however, as the labels were overly broad and the company failed to create partnerships with big tech required for widespread use.

In our view all these initiatives are needed - and more. Internationally, the few communities that have succeeded at combating disinformation, such as Taiwan, have used a combined approach that added an increasing number of players and outreach efforts. 

Most U.S. consumers don’t understand the difference between a journalist and a blogger, or an opinion column and a multi-source investigative series. They wonder who makes the decision to cover a story and why. They question what is the competency and bias of reporters on staff.   

One person's values are perceived by others as bias, but this has nothing to do with journalistic standards around fact-checking, sourcing, and other editorial policies. 

We have sold the idea of objective reporting for so long, it is no wonder that institutional credibility is dissolving. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times both do outstanding journalism while upholding different values.  What media need to promote is their standards, while revealing their values. 

An average citizen could not distinguish between  NewsMax and the Wall Street Journal, before the former was sued by parents over its scandalous coverage of Sandy Hook massacre as fake news. 

The majority of Republicans today don't even believe the WSJ's reporting about election results. Increasingly, they don't trust their own local newspapers, either.

Misinformation (bad information) and disinformation (information deliberately falsified for a purpose) now flow back and forth between cynical perpetrators, biased media, social media, and media consumers in an information swamp that has left half the population with mud in their brains. 

And it is partly our fault.  We were late to this party. Click-baiters,  trolls, and political operatives realized earlier on that a trust vacuum created an opportunity.

If fact-checking amplified were now enough to combat fake news, you could send a news clip to your conspiracy-minded cousin on Facebook and receive back an appreciative note of thanks. 

So yes, there is misinformation and disinformation, but the emotional quality - let's call it trust -  is the third leg of the stool. Trust, or mistrust,  allows erroneous information to turn into belief and acquire a stranglehold on the citizens in spite of the availability of a free press with high reporting standards.  

In fact, as the documentary, "Q: Into the Storm," points out,  freedom of speech itself has a dark side.  People who don't understand the standards and ethics of traditional journalism can easily fall prey to conspiracies. Operatives who weaponize misinformation simply make an end-run around local media to influence elections and policy.

As Heidi Larson, of The Vaccine Confidence Project, put in an interview with the New York Times,  “We don’t have a misinformation problem, we have a trust problem”. 

There are many things that local publishers can do to protect trust in their franchise,  such as providing fact-checking services, adding transparency around how stories are reported, and promoting media literacy in their communities.

This summer, LocalMediaInsider's series on trust will inform local publishers about concrete initiatives they can tap into, to protect this vital asset. 

One thing, however,  is clear: The professional hubris of editors and publishers who did not feel required to disclose journalistic standards such as sourcing, story choice, and ethics assumed a non-questioning public that no longer exists.

It is now up to all of us to set the record straight. 


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