A graphic that reads: 86% of respondents said they felt a sense of trust building with journalists or the news organization. 28% were considering subscribing.
Read more about how this research was done and what recommendations came from the analysis.

Research insights: Reaching and building trust with diverse audiences

Patrick R. Johnson
Trusting News
Published in
12 min readAug 22, 2022


The following introduction was written by Mollie Muchna, project manager at Trusting News. The remainder of the post was written by research partners Patrick Johnson and Sue Robinson.

Most journalists agree it’s important to know how their work is perceived, especially as newsrooms reckon with how they haven’t always reflected the entirety of their communities in their coverage.

But newsroom workflows and routines often don’t allow for interactions with community members that don’t involve contributions to a specific story, a subscription ask, or marketing of a specific story.

However, it’s almost impossible for journalists to effectively reach and serve audiences (especially ones that have been historically underserved) without first understanding who they are serving and how well they are doing it. Especially when the public already thinks journalists rely too heavily on over-generalizations of groups and simplification of problems.

The past year through our Road to Pluralism work, Trusting News has been asking some big questions alongside local newsrooms to see how journalists can be part of the solution to our fractured and polarized communities.

Part of that learning is focused on how journalists can better understand their community’s perceptions of their work so they can better meet their needs and actively address where there are gaps in the public’s trust.

Keep reading to learn more about what our research team found, or jump ahead to the recommendations for what newsrooms can do.

A research project: outreach and listening

Trusting News spent eight weeks this summer working with partner newsrooms to help them learn how they could earn the trust of diverse audiences. We wanted to help journalists learn how they could incorporate outreach efforts with maximum impact and efficiency so they could learn about the needs and perceptions of people with low trust in news in their communities.

First, a big thanks to the following journalists who helped with this project:

These partner journalists conducted 76 interviews with people in their communities. Those interviews, along with 76 follow-up journalist surveys logged, 43 follow-up community surveys, and a focus group of journalists, helped inform the following findings.

What we learned

Overall, what we found is that simply having these conversations helped build a sense of trust between those who were interviewed and the journalists.

Of the community members who took the follow-up survey, 23% reported that their feelings about journalism in general changed for the better, 86% said they felt a sense of trust building with the reporter or the news organization after the conversation, and 28% were considering subscribing.

And journalists said they gained insights into how they could reach audiences they hadn’t been reaching. They emphasized that these conversations helped create a feeling of personal connection, and achieved “so much more than writing something that only our existing audience will read,” one journalist wrote.

Here are some other notable insights.

A quick note: Remember as you read these that the 76 people interviewed were not a representative sample of news consumers. They were chosen to reflect on the lack of trust that they and people like them have in the news.

  • People think news is politically biased. Some respondents believed news — both national and the local news — to be biased in some way (especially political), underfunded, and incompetent.
  • People think journalists are a cause of polarization. Some respondents thought that journalists are one cause of polarization and thus, have a role in decreasing it through a deeper commitment to showing all the different perspectives in as neutral a way as possible.
  • The public wants “just the facts.” Respondents had a variety of roles they wanted journalists to play, with the usual “report the facts, neutrally” the vast majority branding of comments. Most agreed that journalism was essential for democracy and also for healthy communities, but not in its current form. Interestingly, there was a split between community members who identified as conservative or those who identified as liberal. Conservatives want reporters to stop content about Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ communities and identities, and other “liberal” topics. They want reporters to stop using politicized phrases and go with terms like “voting integrity” and “constitutional conservative.” They want “just the facts.” Liberals, on the other hand, want more contexts and histories incorporated into coverage, especially of marginalized communities — though they too want “just the facts.” They want reporters to call out politicians who are lying or being racist, etc. And in general, they want reporters to play a role in helping communities solve problems.

We want to acknowledge that these outreach efforts take time. On average, journalists spent 45 minutes engaged with community members and often spoke about how much time it took to recruit community members for these conversations. We wrote tips for how journalists can have these conversations here.

However, journalists felt this time was worthwhile. They saw that what they were doing with these community conversations were not only rewarding for the future of their newsrooms, but also for the understanding of the diversity of voices and perspectives in the communities they serve.

Want to know more? Here are some other posts you might like.

Note: To honor the agreement the researchers for this project had with all journalists and community members, we are not using names in the quotes included below.

Watch: Below you can watch a replay of a webinar Trusting News hosted with research partner Sue Robinson where they talked about the research findings and lessons from partner journalists.

7 strategies to employ

From these findings, our research team has seven strategies we recommend to help newsrooms focus on outreach.

Keep scrolling to read through these strategies and suggestions for journalists, or jump ahead by clicking any of the topics below.

  1. Build community capital
  2. Engage in partnerships
  3. Tell audiences how journalism works
  4. Be careful when it comes to language and story framing
  5. Be Relevant and Useful
  6. Consolidate Energy
  7. Be Accountable to Your Communities

A big thanks to our research team who helped gather and analyze data. The research team is comprised of Sue Robinson, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Patrick R. Johnson, University of Iowa; Josh Darr, Louisiana State University. Read more about what they’re helping us do here.

1. Build community capital

Journalists have the power to shape trust with their communities, but to do this newsrooms must move beyond seeing audiences as a subscription number to seeing audiences as a part of the conversation. Start utilizing listening sessions, social media and community leaders to hear what the community needs, wants and thinks relative to the newsroom.

“People really want to feel heard, and don’t feel a personal connection with their local journalism outlet,” one journalist shared. “If we could replicate this sort of outreach and include more of our staff, I think it would be beneficial for the audience and our staff.”

Providing space for community members to connect with the journalists in your newsroom is important for gaining trust. We heard that both the journalists and community members in the project believed that an open space for dialogue is the foundation for relationship building.

“Taking time to listen,” a journalist said. “That could be through attending a community event, hosting a community conversation on a topic that the community identifies, or grabbing coffee to talk about ideas with a willing source. Finding new ways to be present and responsive. Take time to examine who you are talking with and including in your work, who is missing?”

Finding out whose voice is missing should be a priority. Our next recommendation is a way to do this.

2. Engage in partnerships

We heard from the community members they wanted to see more positive and joyful stories. But many of them felt the reason they don’t see them is that journalists haven’t spent time getting to know the community beyond political leaders, police or high-powered members.

To remedy this? We suggest making connections (partnerships) with non-political groups and finding trusted influencers within the community to guide journalists to stories.

One journalist reflected on her interviews and the importance of this kind of partnership.

“Instead of being incredibly mistrustful of all or most national news media, they’re like, ‘Wait a second. I’m seeing representation over here. This is what I’m going to read,’ ” she said.

These partnerships could be with other media outlets, like perhaps partnering with Spanish language radio stations to reach part of the community who speaks Spanish as their primary language. Or these partnerships could even be with stores or programs.

When partnering with others, newsrooms will have a place to help build trust and also to build understanding. These partners have the potential to help to educate community members about what journalism does and doesn’t do.

3. Tell audiences how journalism works

One theme we saw repeatedly come up was that there was confusion around how different types of journalism works, and that sometimes that confusion leads to mistrust or avoidance of certain media outlets.

So what can journalists do? Clearly label opinion and news, and use consistent language when labeling. Community members often confuse analysis, news analysis, editorial, column, opinion and others. Finding a way to make sure that these terms are clearly defined and explained is important to avoiding confusion. (Here’s a Trusting News guide for auditing and labeling your opinion content.)

“I think most readers confuse ‘op-ed’ with ‘reporting,’” a community member said. “Journalists are not obligated to report ‘both sides; is one side is fact and another side is fringe. e.g. — Party A says the sky is blue does not require you to report that it is in debate because Party B feels the sky is red, but good journalists should not make independent decisions about what is fact or be the arbiter of what is fact.”

This idea of clearer labeling also includes wire stories. This means being transparent about sourcing especially.

We also recommend publishing transparency sidebars in which reporters talk openly about their own identities that yield biases (political, racial, age, class, education, etc.) and how they mitigate those.

“Stop denying you are biased, regardless of the level of bias, all stories, headlines, media have some bias somewhere,” a community member said. “And that is OK, it is human nature. What really erodes trust is the lack of self-awareness, or at least lying to our faces by saying ‘we are not biased’. Media needs to own it, and that doesn’t have to be malicious. It could be as simple as ‘we acknowledge that we, as humans, have certain feelings and opinions on issues that may sometimes skew our perspective. But we will keep trying to challenge ourselves and work hard to report the facts. We may not always get it right, but we will always work to make it better the next time’… keep that messaging in a variety of formats.”

Another way we recommend journalists do this is by publishing their standards, ethics policies and decisions prominently besides potentially controversial stories. Giving community members insight into a newsroom is important to them being aware of what newsrooms are doing and where they are coming from, especially if difficult or polarized language is used.

4. Be careful when it comes to language and story framing

Feeling misunderstood is incredibly common to community members. It didn’t matter their political affiliation, walk of life or demographic, community members said they feel journalists rely too heavily on over-generalizations and simplification of problems.

“The vast majority of the participants I surveyed felt like their communities needed to be better understood and their opinions more accurately reflected in stories,” a journalist said. “Nearly all of them felt like the news over-generalized their communities — whether that was conservatives who felt like they were depicted as racists, or Generation Zs, who felt like they were identified as too young to understand complicated issues. All claimed they consumed a lot of their news through news links shared on social media. Most of them also despised sensational headlines.”

We recommend journalists should strive for more moderate discussion that does not showcase extremes and should avoid “the loudest person in the room.” This also means considering doing away with your political editorials (including endorsements) as well as national columns, keeping the editorial pages all local and clearly labeled, and being transparent about the political affiliations of all who are writing in that space.

“I guess I would say, if you honestly want change, to keep in mind that people who are conservative like me, we come from a different viewpoint,” a community member said. “And maybe we’ll disagree on something and that can be fine, but try to understand where we’re coming from. That’s all you want is to see that an effort has been made to understand a different view instead of just dismissing it and saying you’re racist, sexist, whatever, a neo-Nazi.”

We believe to respond to this type of claim, journalists need to make sure to add context and history, especially when writing about issues that have plagued a community for decades. Call out racism and lies, but explain to constituents how you came to that determination using evidence. Journalists can be sure to be specific when talking about race, understanding that no single person can represent an entire heritage, for example.

Journalists are in a unique position to recount what has been tried before, what reports or study task forces have recommended, and what other communities have tried that have been successful solutions. Community members are sensitive to their voices; journalists must be conscientious of that.

5. Be relevant and useful

Approach all group members with respect, especially if you lack cultural relevancy and especially if they are experiencing trauma. If you are trying to reach more immigrant populations, make sure to translate into that language as much as you can; consider having a separate online presence dedicated to that translation.

“I don’t see really news in Spanish,” a community member said. “You’re trying to reach the community, the Hispanic community, we have a huge language barrier. I don’t know if it’s any kind of intention to have a presentment in Spanish with news that may be appealing to the Hispanic community. Because all the news should be appealing.”

We also believe you should have representation of as many identities on staff — and know who everyone is, making it known that all identities are welcome and will be nurtured in the newsroom. Turn those identities into assets for coverage. (Read more from Trusting News about the dimensions of difference on your staff.)

“If we don’t see people up there like us… I guess it’s been drilled into our head that we have to mistrust everyone, that we can only trust people that we know,” a community member said. “So we see someone that doesn’t look like this, or doesn’t have empathy for us, or we just don’t understand. There’s no communication and we’re going to steer away from that.”

6. Consolidate energy

There may be community members you are not able to reach. That can be hard for journalists to accept. But if a group won’t be won over by facts, they likely will never be consumers or supporters of your news.

It’s important to think about how you’ll address them or accept that you may have to give up on them — especially those who believe in conspiracy theories. Instead, we advise you to focus on less extreme people who have just become disillusioned with news but are still reachable.

7. Be accountable to your communities

Our final recommendation is to admit when mistakes are made and follow up on stories. If you identify a bias that crept into your reporting, fix in the next time around. We reiterate that you should be transparent about reporters’ biases through transparency sidebars that explain how the reporter mitigates their bias.

“Tell the facts. Don’t make it lopsided. Don’t make it political,” a community member said. “Just straight, tell the facts. And, follow up on that story. Even if you sensationalized it in the middle when you first reported it and found out that it really wasn’t what you thought it was, well, hold yourselves accountable.”

Have someone dedicated to whatever group it is that you have been talking to that feels left out and misunderstood to do research on that group and help any reporters in the newsroom who are covering the election be more nuanced.

We’re continuing on this Road to Pluralism

We’re excited to continue learning alongside newsrooms, helping journalists better understand audience perceptions and how people might feel about their coverage. Read more about the work we want to help newsrooms while on the Road to Pluralism.

Interested in learning more about this work or partnering with us in future pluralism work? Fill out this form. We’ll keep in touch as we have new projects and research opportunities.

One of the best ways to follow our work and see examples from other newsrooms is to subscribe to our weekly Trust Tips newsletter. If you have questions, feedback, or other thoughts, you can email us at info@trustingnews.org or reach out on Twitter.

At Trusting News, we learn how people decide what news to trust and turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We train and empower journalists to take responsibility for demonstrating credibility and actively earning trust through transparency and engagement. We’re co-hosted by the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute. Subscribe to our Trust Tips newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Read more about our work at TrustingNews.org.