local media insider

In the future, trust will be earned

Opinion: It's up to local media to educate their audiences

Alisa Cromer

We’ve all met her. The woman in your tennis doubles group who delivers a passionate diatribe before the game begins. Vaccines are a plot by Bill Gates and Dr. Fauci to reduce the world population, she contends. 

The information is vital to your very survival, she shares, “and 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 illegitimate. For those of us who spent a career in journalism-based media, the trust challenge seems increasingly urgent.  

Trust is financially critical to the survival of any local media outlet. People are willing to pay for trusted local news, and digital subscriptions are an increasingly important revenue base. Local media's status in the community also provides the 'halo" effect that advertisers want. 

Finally,  the goodwill around a newspaper's role as a community service also affects the bottom line.  Local government decisions on public notice requirements, newsbox placement regulations, or even the decision to answer a reporter's phone call depend on this role. So do the new rounds of non-profit funding from local corporations and foundations that local news organizations increasingly rely upon as part of a sustainable model.

Fortunately, local media are still the trust leaders among media types, although that trust is also eroding,  as the damage from cable news leaks into the local water supply. Only 27 percent of Republicans today trust local media. 

According to Sally Lehrman, founder of the Trust Project, initiatives to thwart the proliferation of misinformation fall into two main types. Let's call them  Warriors and Saints.  Warriors launch initiatives combatting disinformation,  and Saints launching initiatives to elevate legitimate news. 

Warriors include fact-checking services,  billion-dollar lawsuits, and big technology banning the bad actors. 

Saints include water-marking initiatives and positive rating services, such as the  The Trust Project, and media literacy programs of all kinds.  In short,  saints are the trust-builders,  and warriors are the information police.

Newsguard attempted an initiative that fell somewhere in between a warrior and a saint 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.

All these initiatives are needed - and more. International communities that have succeeded at combating disinformation, such as Taiwan, have used a combined approach that includes multiple players and outreach efforts. 

In the United States, arguably the historical home of the press,  most citizens don’t understand the difference between a journalist and a blogger, or an opinion column and a multi-source investigative series.

My CPA  last week, took a break from tax planning to complain about the bias of the New York Times and the Washington Post. 

Values/biases have nothing to do with journalistic standards.   Fact-checking, sourcing, corrections, and other editorial policies are entirely separate issues, I tried to explain. 

The Wall Street Journal and New York Times both do outstanding journalism while upholding different values, I said, as his eyes glazed over. I'm sure you have had many of these same conversations. 

One problem may be that for generations, newspapers hid behind the claim of objectivity, rather than embracing their community-based values and disclosing more about reporting ethics and standards.  The newspaper-employed ombudsmen that some major dailies hired to ensure fairness, whatever that means, never convinced anyone and are now the relic of a simpler past.

Today misinformation, defined as bad information, and disinformation, or information intentionally falsified, flows back and forth between cynical perpetrators,  on-air pundits pretending to be journalists,  social media,  and media consumers in an information swamp that has left half the population with mud in their brains. Even some local politicians have  jumped on the band wagon for their own political survival. 

And it is partly our fault. Local media has been late to the game. Click-baiters,  trolls, and political operatives realized early on that the trust vacuum created opportunity and beat us to the punch. 

The recent "Q: Into the Storm," points out that freedom of speech itself sometimes has a dark side.  Operatives who weaponize misinformation can influence policy, elections and even incite violence.

Heidi Larson, of The Vaccine Confidence Project, an effort to combat misinformation around Covid vaccination,  put in another way in  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 franchises.  Start by signing up for the Trust Project and adhering to their standards of transparency.  Running a fact-checking service, even one that is syndicated., is another way to police the information released into your community.  Citizens do want this kind of truth-to-power policing, according to a 2020 Knight Ridder Foundation report. 

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

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

Local Media, Trust, Fake News