Journalism is supposed to serve democracy, build empathy and connect people to each other.
Too often, it focuses on extremes and flattens out complex views. In addition, too many news consumers believe journalists have taken sides, don’t represent their communities and aren’t really interested in fairness or diversity of perspectives.
At Trusting News, we’ve been working with journalists since 2016 to demonstrate their credibility and actively earn trust. We use transparency and engagement strategies to help newsrooms build deeper relationships with their communities and tell the story of their work.
Some of our goals crystallized throughout the 2020 election season, and since then, we’ve been talking more about how to help local newsrooms tell accurate, nuanced stories that are reflective of and relevant to people across the political spectrum. We’ve heard over and over that local journalists feel like they’re automatically trusted by some folks and immediately written off by others. Some people feel like their lives and values are reflected in the news, and others just don’t.
Hearing about journalists’ frustrations and goals surrounding the fractured society they’re operating in — described by more than one as an existential crisis — has led us to where we are today.
Announcing our new initiative: A Road to Pluralism
The initiative we’re launching is designed to help local journalists take stock of their role in a polarized society and how they can reach and be trusted by a more diverse audience with fact-based, responsible journalism.
A Road to Pluralism: Helping journalists strengthen trust across the political spectrum to bridge divides, foster productive conversations and fuel open-mindedness.
As we formed our plans for this initiative, we invested in some research to more fully understand the perceptions and needs of one group of news consumers who are known for their low trust: people who identify as conservative or otherwise lean to the right side of the political spectrum. They often perceive a political bias in news and feel their own views are stereotyped or written off. And they have plenty of assumptions and perceptions to share about journalists’ integrity, ethics and goals.
Together with the Center for Media Engagement and 27 partner newsrooms, we conducted 91 interviews with right-leaning consumers of local news.
- Read the researchers’ full report, including their six key takeaways for journalists.
- Read this piece from Lynn Walsh, assistant director of Trusting News, which explains the research and includes reflections and insights from journalists who conducted the interviews.
- Read in more depth about why we believe journalists’ understanding of their audiences should include conservatives
Read on to learn about the framework for this initiative.
Then find out how you can get involved in our new Pluralism Network to drill down on specific challenges and find solutions.
With our work, we want to focus on a vision of what we want to create, not just what problems we’re hoping to avoid. We want to foster local journalism that helps people understand each other, communicate with each other and work together to solve problems.
Conversations — and journalism — about public life and societal issues too often revolve around extreme views, dehumanizing arguments and “us vs them” assumptions. Research has found journalists overrepresent the views of extreme partisans, giving the impression of an exaggerated polarization. Moderate views and compromise aren’t as dramatic and get less attention.
For some people, though, their perception of news is the opposite: They think journalists are afraid to rock the boat and take a stand. They complain that journalism gives voice to misinformation, often in the name of “balance.” And people across political views and worldviews sometimes — and often justifiably — feel misunderstood, disregarded or underrepresented. They see the media as part of a power structure that needs disruption.
This extends far beyond the coverage of political issues. Pluralism is about the belief there is more than one correct or acceptable way of looking at things — and that people with different views can co-exist and even collaborate respectfully and productively. It’s about the goal of a vibrant, diverse democracy and what it will take for “we the people” to get there.
That is not to say that every perspective is acceptable or that every voice deserves to be heard. On the contrary; journalists have a role to play as filters and gatekeepers. It is important and appropriate for them to exercise their conscience and to rely on their personal and organizational values as they make decisions about news coverage. In the newsroom and in news stories, it’s important and appropriate to be aware of which worldviews and values are represented and heard, and which are absent or silenced.
The book The Elements of Journalism, which is now in a new fourth edition, addresses the need to place a high value on intellectual diversity. The concept goes beyond having hiring targets related to ethnicity, race and gender and invites the industry to consider all the ways a newsroom should resemble society at large. Success on this topic relies on having a newsroom culture that values and empowers those differences.
“Intellectual diversity means not just assembling a roomful of people who think differently and come from different experiences and backgrounds. It means creating a culture in which people are then allowed to let those experiences and backgrounds inform the production of the news.”
We know that too often, journalists with non-dominant views and experiences feel silenced in newsrooms. It can feel risky to speak up about coverage they see as contributing to problematic power dynamics, reinforcing stereotypes or creating harmful or exclusionary narratives. Sometimes our views and experiences are visible to our colleagues, but sometimes they aren’t and we have to choose whether to talk about them publicly. A journalist’s experiences with sexuality, religion or class, for example, could help make her newsroom’s coverage more complex and relevant. Or she could decide not to speak up for fear of tangible or intangible blowback.
Newsrooms need those diverse, complex experiences in order to produce coverage that is reflective of the diversity of their communities.
Why local news?
At Trusting News, we continue to work with national news organizations on transparency and engagement strategies for earning trust. That’s not stopping.
But with A Road to Pluralism, our focus is on local journalism for a few reasons:
The stakes are high.
Local communities need responsible information. Democracy depends on it, and there is often only one or a handful of organizations providing it. Too many communities have let it disappear already. When local news disappears, voters become more partisan. As a 2019 study showed:
Local newspapers provide a valuable service to democracy by keeping readers’ focus on their communities. When they lose local newspapers, we have found, readers turn to their political partisanship to inform their political choices. If Americans can tear themselves away from the spectacle in Washington and support local news with their dollars and attention, it could help to push back against the partisan polarization that has taken over American politics today.
Local communities have shared identities and goals.
That often makes it easier to move beyond red and blue positions into a more complex, empathetic understanding of people and issues. One recent research experiment revealed promising evidence for this notion by demonstrating that a local newspaper could slow polarization by focusing on local writers on opinion pages.
“When a local newspaper in California dropped national politics from its opinion page, the resulting space filled with local writers and issues. We use a pre-registered analysis plan to show that after this quasi-experiment, politically engaged people did not feel as far apart from members of the opposing party, compared to those in a similar community whose newspaper did not change. While it may not cure all of the imbalances and inequities in opinion journalism, an opinion page that ignores national politics could help local newspapers push back against political polarization.”
That’s exactly the kind of work we want to see more of, and we’re determined to work with newsrooms to find effective strategies to produce more of it.
Apply to join our Pluralism Network
For more than five years, we’ve been working alongside journalists to find strategies and solutions to journalism’s trust problem. We’re digging even deeper now and inviting local journalists to join forces with us on this important topic.
Our new Pluralism Network invites journalists into conversations and collaborations addressing how journalism can reach and be trusted by a more diverse audience with fact-based, responsible journalism. Our goal is to strengthen trust across the political spectrum by helping journalists bridge divides, foster productive conversations and fuel open-mindedness.
Who is the network for?
We welcome interest from any journalist or related practitioner who is curious about this topic, invested in finding solutions and willing to contribute to the collective efforts. We are building a space not just for learning but for engaging and taking action. To be blunt: If you want to hear about what we’re doing, subscribe to our newsletter. If you want to participate in what we’re doing, apply to join the Pluralism Network.
How does the network work? What will members do?
The Pluralism Network is hosted in the Trusting News Slack workspace. On Slack, members will:
- Learn insights from research related to how political views influence news perceptions and consumptions
- Hear from journalists who’ve been reaching out to people with low trust
- Share with each other what you’re trying, and see examples of innovative work
- Connect around shared challenges and frustrations
- Contribute to collaborative experiments by adding trust elements to your news content in order to help the network identify solutions
- Help identify opportunities for related research projects
- Be willing to individually hear from and check in with the Trusting News team periodically
What will the network address?
We’ve identified five initial themes we’re eager to dive into and develop strategies around. The themes are based on what we’ve heard from the newsrooms we work with, on the experiences of our newsroom partners who conducted the recent interviews with conservatives in their communities, and on the results of those interviews themselves.
Over the next several weeks, we’re going to write more about each of these themes. We also will be hosting more targeted conversations around each one. Those conversations will be held at 2 pm ET on Thursdays. At each, we’ll talk to journalists from our partner newsrooms who have experiences and ideas to share about the topic. They’re open to anyone, whether applying to the Pluralism Network or not.
Tentative dates are below, and you can register for the event series here.
Our five themes are:
- Aug. 26: The challenges of national stories in local news. People value local reporting about their community. But their low opinions of and trust in coverage of national politics and cultural issues are affecting how people view their local news outlet. What role does wire content play in local news products? How can journalists reinforce the importance of what they offer their communities and re-examine the role national stories play in their coverage?
- Sept. 2: Generalizations and polarization. Journalists’ use of catch-all phrases, descriptions and labels can make people feel oversimplified or placed into one-size-fits-all categories. That can be true for organizations, for religions, for opinions, for causes, for racial groups, etc. In addition, journalists often gravitate toward dramatic or extreme views, which can reinforce polarizing narratives. How can journalists resist the allure of lazy narratives and tell more accurate, more complex stories about the spectrum of perspectives in their communities?
- Sept. 9: Perceptions of stories’ fairness. News consumers often say they want stories that “just give me the facts” and “include both sides.” What does that look like day to day, in coverage of social issues, politics and life in general? What makes a story feel fair, neutral or balanced? What makes it feel slanted or opinionated? And how do those elements play out in the decisions journalists make day to day about things like sourcing, word choice and headline writing?
- Sept. 16: Bias in the newsroom. What are journalists’ own experiences and worldviews? Do they reflect diversity of thought, life experiences and values, as well as diversity of race, gender, age, geography and socioeconomic status? Journalists are sometimes taught to recognize their own biases and blind spots in key ways. But does that skill extend to intellectual diversity, which isn’t something newsrooms tend to discuss openly? Who is invited onto newsroom staffs? And how does the default culture of newsrooms encourage or discourage open conversations?
- Sept. 30*: Outreach and listening. The journalists who have participated in our interview projects (this most recent work and a previous study) have told us how much they learned from their conversations. The same was true for the community members they interviewed, who expressed thankfulness and appreciation to the journalists for taking time to get to know them. How can journalists build into their routines continual learning about the diverse people in their communities, especially when those people aren’t well represented in the newsroom? (*This date has been updated.)
These events will help us dig into our recent research results and further flesh out what we hope to accomplish with our Pluralism Network. You’re invited to join the events whether you join the network or not — anyone’s welcome.
But, we’re not stopping there. There will be additional events featuring Q&As with people whose research, perspectives and expertise can help broaden our thinking around pluralism and journalism’s role in democracy. Who would you like to hear from? Let me know.
A Road to Pluralism is the beginning of something we’ve been working toward for months. It’s also a work in progress. Our team at Trusting News would love to hear from you about what you hope we’ll accomplish, what pitfalls you hope we’ll avoid and who you’d like to see us collaborate with. Get in touch anytime via email, Twitter or Facebook.
We’ll be sharing updates and invitations connected to this initiative in our weekly newsletter, Trust Tips. Subscribe here.
Thanks for reading.
Trusting News is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re co-hosted by the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Subscribe to our Trust Tips newsletter. Read more about our work at TrustingNews.org.