To increase trust in the press, let’s look at the good experiences people have with journalists

The American Press Institute released a new study on the relationship between the public and the press. One takeaway: Look at ways the relationship is working well.

A local TV reporter interviews a member of the public. (Bob Mical, Creative Commons)

How do Americans feel after interacting with journalists? How do they feel about the accuracy and fairness of the reporting that comes as a result, and how might it affect people’s overall feelings of trust in the news media?

We at the American Press Institute decided to ask those questions — among many others — in a new study by our Media Insight Project partnership. We conducted twin surveys — one of the U.S. adults and one of journalists — that looked at what the public and the press understand about each other.

One of the many issues we explored was how Americans’ actual interactions with journalists affect the people-press relationship.

For starters, interactions with journalists are fairly rare. Only about a third of people have personally known a journalist. Fewer have ever contacted a journalist with story ideas or feedback (21 percent) and — despite how it might seem to journalists who spend a lot of time there — fewer still have conversed with a journalist on social media (17 percent).

Moreover, only a modest number of Americans say they’ve been interviewed by a journalist. Just 32 percent say they’ve talked with a journalist in this formal way.

Yet when Americans do interact with journalists or are involved in the news, most think it went pretty well. A strong majority of Americans who were interviewed for a news report said at minimum the stories got the important facts right (notably, most do say it had minor inaccuracies). Just 11 percent it was mostly inaccurate.

Interactive chart and data table in this chapter

But perhaps more importantly, an even larger percentage of Americans who did interviews thought the reporting was done in good faith. Some eight in 10 Americans said the resulting coverage was unbiased and fair.

Interactive chart and data table in this chapter

This stat should affirm the work of many journalists — even if the journalism could be improved, the coverage was fair.

Many Americans also view the motivations of journalists in a similar, somewhat positive light. When asked how journalists decide which stories to cover, majorities say that journalists do care about how many people will pay attention to the story (62 percent) but also about how many people will be affected by it (51 percent). Fewer people thought the journalists’ bias was a motivator in story decisions (38 percent).

Interactive chart and data table in this chapter

The positive response from interviewees should also pose some food for thought. Journalists might build trust by expanding and diversifying the circles of people they interview, and by taking care to treat those sources fairly, quote them accurately, and even follow up afterward.

Certainly, there will always be a question of bandwidth. Other researchers have documented the decline in the number of journalists in the U.S., and the ones who remain still are stretched thin. So you can’t interview everyone, though perhaps small hyperlocal publishers can get closest.

But there are other ways journalists can engage with the public that people might also view positively.

One of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s “pop-up newsrooms.”

Our survey doesn’t have the proof, but many news organizations offer possibilities on this front. In Nashville, The Tennessean is inviting people from alienated or neglected groups into the newsroom to discuss what they care about as well as their views on coverage. The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and others have their journalists be visible in the communities they’re seeking to serve. Gather, the engaged journalism community led by the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon, certainly has many examples. In most cases, these aren’t formal interviews necessarily, though they also let the public participate in the news in a meaningful way, often times like interviews could.

More generally, this frame of looking at the good experiences people are having with journalists might be a worthy endeavor for groups looking to improve the relationship between the public and the press.

Not all the relationship between the public and the press is bad — our survey shows some of these bright spots, and studying more of these examples will benefit trust, media and democracy.

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