Talk about why you need money (and other lessons from Gallup/Knight research)
The latest in a series of research reports from Gallup and Knight Foundation was released last week, and it holds important insights for people invested in the relevance and sustainability of journalism. It also overlaps significantly with our work at Trusting News. This post will share some highlights from the research and also offer strategies for journalists who want to act on the insights.
Read the executive summary and download the whole report here: American Views 2022: Part 2, Trust, Media and Democracy
One important component of the research report is the concept of emotional trust: What are the emotional factors that influence attitudes toward news?
If you’ve been through one of our workshops at Trusting News, you have likely heard us talk about how trust involves both head and heart. It’s easy to focus on the fact-based elements of credibility. Journalists are comfortable with the idea they should provide evidence — a list of facts — that shows they’re trustworthy.
But trust is also about what feels right and safe. Do people feel like the news is on their side? That it’s a force for good? That it’s being produced with integrity?
Some of our research (with the Center for Media Engagement) has broken trust into more specific factors and the five dimensions of emotional trust outlined in this Gallup/Knight research simplify it further. Each one is connected to a research question. Give these some thought: competency, reliability, benevolence (societal level), benevolence (individual level) and integrity.
We can’t argue people’s answers to those five questions with facts. We can’t just use logic to change their minds. But we CAN operate with an understanding that we are continually shaping people’s views of us.
As journalists, we should care deeply about why people feel we are untrustworthy. We can’t effectively address mistrust unless we understand it.
The 64-page research report is full of interesting and useful insights. And a lot of those insights reinforce the need for what we train journalists to do at Trusting News and will inform our work going forward.
Here are 4 takeaways from the report and what Trusting News suggests journalists do in response.
1. Local news outlets are perceived as more trustworthy than national news.
This has been shown in plenty of previous studies. What is especially helpful about the insights in this report is this nugget: Twice as many people perceive local news outlets (compared to national) care about the impact of their work. Local news outlets are more likely to be seen as caring about what happens as a result of their journalism.
We routinely ask journalists to look at the feedback they get and to summarize the obstacles that get in the way of more trust from their community. Often included on that list is the idea that journalists are ruthless — we care only about getting the story and getting clicks and we’re not concerned with who the story hurts.
There’s no point denying that categorically. I know we could probably all point to journalism that actually DOES fit that unflattering description — whether local or national. Remember, we are all part of “the media.”
TRUSTING NEWS RECOMMENDATION: Rather than defend all news outlets, we each can tell a better story about our own mission and ethics. We can talk about how we work to get things right, correct ourselves when we’re wrong and explain how we work to be fair. We can talk about how we decide what to cover and why journalism sometimes makes people mad or causes discomfort. Remember, all of those answers and decisions are invisible to the public unless we shine a light on them.
2. Local journalists should talk about their financial picture.
This study backs up what the same organizations found in 2019: If people understand local news lacks sufficient resources, they are more likely to say they’re willing to pay in the future.
But wait (we often hear) — Are you saying you want us to draw attention to the fact that we have a smaller staff than we used to? That we can’t cover as much as we used to? That our financial outlook is changing for the worse? Yep, if that’s true for you, that’s what we’re recommending.
If your situation isn’t about diminishing resources but is more generally about limited resources and the desire to do more — if you are newer on the scene, if you want to grow, etc. — then tell *that* story.
We know the public is uninformed about the business side of the news industry. We also know when people don’t understand something, they often jump to unflattering and inaccurate assumptions. So get on the record about where you get your money and why you rely on community support.
TRUSTING NEWS RECOMMENDATION: As you tell a story about why you need your community’s support, be honest about how the business model for news has changed. You could talk about how you prioritize what to cover and how important that is since your staff isn’t as robust as it used to be. And as we advised at the beginning of the pandemic, you can explain how the economy affects your bottom line. You could also talk about what percentage of your funding comes from the public. You could point to what an increase in donations or subscriptions has allowed you to do in the past. The point is to give people a window into how your finances work and what role they play.
One other note about funding: The researchers of this study asked people about how news organizations balance the need for profit with a public service mission. They found “three in four U.S. adults say news organizations are first and foremost businesses, motivated by their financial interests and goals. These attitudes are particularly salient among younger generations of Americans, Republicans and independents.”
We know a lot of you are frustrated about how corporate interests are changing content priorities and gutting newsroom staff. This point from the research might not be one you feel comfortable refuting. But if you ARE in a newsroom that is striking a healthy balance between financial sustainability (whether for-profit or nonprofit) and a service mission, be sure you’re telling your community that story.
3. We’re losing trust with independents, not just Republicans.
It’s no surprise to journalists that people on the conservative end of the political spectrum have declining trust in news. That’s something we’ve been researching and talking a lot about, especially since the 2020 election. Too often, the response we hear from the industry is that conservatives aren’t going to trust us no matter what we do, so why bother?
This research complicates that picture considerably.
It’s not only extreme partisans on the right who have low trust in news. Favorable feelings toward news are trending sharply down for independents as well. And the view among independents that the news has a political bias is increasing. This is not something journalists can compartmentalize or ignore.
It makes sense that the reasons behind this trend are hard for journalists to see. People view the world through their own mix of experiences, values and assumptions, and journalists are not immune from that. Nor are we immune from the social sorting society is increasingly doing. We tend to spend our time with people we have a lot in common with. What that means is newsrooms have a high degree of social homophily, which means we’re a lot like each other. And we too often hear from journalists they don’t feel comfortable challenging their newsroom’s dominant culture and belief system.
TRUSTING NEWS RECOMMENDATION: Newsrooms could use more Dimensions of Difference on their staffs — more diversity of experiences, values and views. This hiring guide, co-created with Trusting News partner journalists, can help hiring managers learn more about what job candidates would contribute toward those goals. Through our Dimensions of Difference newsroom guide, we are walking newsrooms through an assessment of their own values and assumptions — as individuals, and as a newsroom. We’re helping them see how those factors show up in their coverage and we’re asking who in their communities might feel seen and reflected by their coverage, and who would not.
In our Road to Pluralism work over the past two years, we’ve provided research and resources that can help bridge divides as well. Here are two examples: Together with partner newsrooms, we’ve shared a guide for listening to people with low trust in news, and we’ve published an Anti-Polarization Checklist to use when reporting and editing.
4. We need to be part of the solution to news overwhelm, not the problem.
Consuming what journalists produce too often leaves people feeling anxious, exhausted and pessimistic. But the incentive structure for journalism is usually about producing more content and enticing people to spend more time with it.
Researchers asked people whether the volume of information makes it easier or harder to stay informed. Six in 10 said it’s harder.
TRUSTING NEWS RECOMMENDATION: There’s a lot of potential for journalists to be a resource — especially for people with low emotional trust in national news — in navigating a crowded information landscape. We can help them decide how much news to consume and where to get it. We can make it easier for them to step away. We can be more mindful of the mix of stories and the emotional cost of being immersed in our products.
We also need to be mindful of how many people are already tuning us out. What would it take to offer something that feels relevant to the 82 percent of people who reported not paying “a great deal” of attention to local news last year? When it comes to the future of local news, it’s worth noting that that number rises to 94 percent of Gen Z and 88 percent of Millenials.
Here are a few more tidbits from this robust picture about people with low emotional trust in the news:
- They see news organizations as driven by profit rather than a sense of mission
- They feel a lack of confidence about navigating today’s information environment
- They are less willing to pay for news
- They are more pessimistic about the state of democracy in the country today
- They don’t believe news is free from government influence
- They are likely to have skepticism about the integrity of government, and of other kinds of experts
This research report’s introduction includes this statement:
“The data presented here make a case for why the journalism industry should double down on efforts to rebuild the public’s trust — and how they can do it more effectively.”
We’ve always said at Trusting News that we’d love to work ourselves out of a job. Imagine if our work — empowering journalists to demonstrate credibility and actively earn trust — weren’t needed?
But as long as it is, we’re ready to double down.
How you can stay in touch with our work
If you’re new to Trusting News, here are places to check out our work:
- Subscribe to our Trust Tips newsletter to get one quick, actionable tip in your inbox each week.
- Follow us on Twitter for conversations and examples of how newsrooms are earning trust
- Check out our resources page for handouts and tip sheets.
- Sign up for our free, self-paced class hosted by Poynter.
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.