New research reinforces that: People are fed up with misrepresentation and underrepresentation. They are disengaged because of harmful or limiting stereotypes. They are asking for fairness, impartiality and transparency (and might not know we want the same thing). They can tell newsrooms lack important Dimensions of Difference.

Your audience can tell when you’re out of touch (and other insights from Reuters research on trust)

Joy Mayer
Trusting News
Published in
8 min readApr 18


New research from the Reuters Institute’s Trust In News Project deepens our understanding of the causes of low trust in news. It reinforces what we know about how it feels to consume the news if you don’t feel like it is made for or by people like you.

It is such a gift to have researchers committing to gathering extensive insights into what people think of journalism. One of our goals at Trusting News is to distill that research into actionable steps journalists can take. In this post, I’ll share four observations journalists need to reckon with, along with resources that can help. Then I’ll tell you what we are recommending journalists do in response: gather audience insights in your own community.

Read the full report // News for the powerful and privileged: how misrepresentation and underrepresentation of disadvantaged communities undermine their trust in news

This report is based on 41 focus groups in four countries — Brazil, India, the UK, and the U.S. The research team paints a powerful picture of how people — especially those in marginalized communities — feel about the accuracy and relevance of news coverage. It includes both big-picture patterns and individual reflections.

Five concerns about misrepresentation and underrepresentation are: bias towards negative topics and framing; coverage that feels unbalanced and unfair to some groups; harmful or limiting stereotypes; voices missing from coverage; coverage that promotes divisiveness.
Five concerns about misrepresentation and underrepresentation in news coverage. Image from Reuters.

People are fed up with misrepresentation and underrepresentation

The researchers outlined concerns from people about how their communities are misrepresented or undercovered.

“Most saw news media as not only out of touch but at times an especially harmful force that did real damage to their communities, either through neglecting them altogether or exploiting them, reinforcing harmful stereotypes, or sensationalising in divisive and polarising ways.”

Participants in all four countries pointed to different examples of how news coverage can stoke conflict across divides of race, class, geography and religion. They said coverage gives too much attention to problems along those fault lines and ends up with a narrative that overemphasizes them.

That does not mean journalists shouldn’t cover polarizing problems. It DOES mean our coverage should avoid giving the impression most people live on the extreme ends of problems. Plenty of research has shown journalists choose sources with especially extreme views. That’s true when we decide which member of Congress to give air time to, and it’s true when we select quotes from parents to at a contentious school board meeting. Our sourcing can lack nuance and paint an oversimplified and fundamentally inaccurate picture.

Journalists should pause when choosing sources to consider questions of the full spectrum of perspectives on an issue, not just the extremes. To get started, consider this question from the sourcing section of our Anti-Polarization Checklist:

Consider where your sources fall along a range of views on the subject matter being discussed. Are you comfortable with where they lean? Would the story benefit from less ideological views?

They are disengaged because of harmful or limiting stereotypes

A related concern is coverage can reinforce harmful stereotypes that affect how people are seen in the community and also how they see themselves. In U.S. focus groups, researchers heard about coverage that portrayed rural communities as “hicks” and reducing portrayals of those areas to “corn fields and pig farms.” They also heard about coverage that hypersexualized Black women and gave the impression Black people “are the only menace society faces.”

Several participants raised doubt about journalists’ integrity on this topic, suggesting “journalists intentionally chose stereotypical people to serve as unflattering exemplars of their group or play into broader narratives about them.”

The question we want to pose is: Who would feel seen and understood by your story, and who would feel misrepresented or ignored?

It might be you don’t have a deep enough understanding of your community to answer that question. If that’s the case, where can you turn? Do you have colleagues whose experience you can rely on? Or an advisory board? Or a previous source who could offer feedback?

They are asking for fairness, impartiality and transparency (and they might not know we want the same thing)

When asked what they wanted from trustworthy journalism, participants emphasized “their desire for news to be more impartial — that is, more fair, balanced, and objective.”

People said they were tired of finding opinions intertwined with the news. They said they feel like there are hidden agendas behind editorial practices.

If you work hard to be fair, how are you explaining that to your audience? Where can they seen signs of that commitment? Consider articulating what fairness looks like for your newsroom. Get on the record about it. (Take inspiration from the San Diego Union-Tribune’s fairness checklist.) Then draw attention to that commitment day to day.

Participants also reported wanting to know more about how news organizations operate.

“Transparency came up across some groups as one way news organisations might reduce concerns about why they made the decisions they did regarding what sources to quote (or exclude), what stories to cover (or ignore), and what aspects of news were deemed newsworthy (to whom and why). It is worth keeping in mind that many people, including some of our focus group participants, are ‘casual’ news users who are unlikely to actively engage with transparency efforts, but their stated desire for more is important nonetheless.”

This is our bread and butter at Trusting News. Here are a few ways to dive in:

They can tell newsrooms lack important Dimensions of Difference

Focus group participants had some strong negative impressions about who journalists are. They reported conceiving of journalists as:

  • not understanding the realities of communities outside of their own
  • often embarrassingly inaccurate due to unfamiliarity with topics or geographies
  • coming from backgrounds that are different — and definitely more privileged — than them
  • motivated to reinforce power structures that keep some groups oppressed
  • similar to politicians in some ways, for example extracting what they need from communities and then leaving

Those disconnects cause mistrust. People can tell when their values and experiences are not represented in news coverage. And too often, those values and experiences are often not present in newsrooms. Research participants had plenty to say about “the importance of people like themselves having a say in shaping editorial decisions within newsrooms.”

We know newsroom staffs are typically whiter, more educated, more urban and better off financially than the communities they serve. Consider other factors like religion, disabilities, military service and experience with the criminal justice system. And don’t forget about political leanings.

Our Dimensions of Difference guide, a collaboration with Spaceship Media, is designed to help journalists identify their own internal values and experience gaps and to have productive conversations about how their coverage can improve. The related resource for hiring editors can help you learn more about what job candidates would contribute to your newsroom’s Dimensions of Difference.

Newsrooms need to invest in building a team and a set of processes that build insight, empathy and continual learning about the people they aim to serve. Take it from the research team. They acknowledged that addressing these problems might mean reallocating scarce resources.

“This comes down to a question of priorities — just as not taking such steps is also a choice. In other words, there is no neutral path here. Each involves, to varying degrees, editorial and other trade-offs that we have sought to highlight throughout this report. The perspectives captured across many of these focus groups reflect frustrations with news media that too often defaults to forms of coverage that purport to be fair and factual, but which often reflect and reinforce a narrow view of the world shared by dominant groups in society, while systematically excluding the points of view of those who have not historically been afforded a voice in newsrooms to weigh in on such matters. Better representing marginalised and underserved communities in news coverage requires a willingness to confront and rectify these disparities, not simply an acknowledgement of the problem.”

Our plea at Trusting News: Journalists need to take time to listen and learn

It’s one thing to read a research report about someone across the country who feels dissatisfied with and misrepresented by their own local news.

It’s quite another thing to sit with someone in your own community and hear how those perceptions and problems play out locally.

If I were running a local newsroom, I would invest significant time in understanding how these issues play out in my own community.

I would:

  1. Build community listening into the job of the journalists. Have them each commit to interviewing one person a month with low trust in news. Here’s our community interview guide to start with. My favorite question on it is: What do journalists often get wrong about you or about things in your life?
  2. Have them share a summary of what they heard back with the team. You could use a google form for easy tagging and sorting of answers. To easily share insights, they could share one key thing they heard in a dedicated Slack channel or other newsroom-wide communication system. Then perhaps one person elaborates on their encounter in each staff meeting?
  3. Assign someone to keep an eye on the submissions and look for patterns to report back.
  4. Identify how you’re changing your coverage as a result of what you hear. How are the reporters changing their story selection? Story framing? Sourcing? Word choices? Have assignment editors ask reporters to identify the changes. Talk about those in story meetings and newsroom discussions.
  5. Don’t rely on your internal perspectives to decide if the changes are effective. Ask particularly insightful or passionate participants to keep in touch. Perhaps they serve on an official advisory board. Or perhaps they agree to be contacted from time to time for feedback. When a story is done that you hope might address their concerns, are they willing to look at it? If they share significant time with you, be sure to respect that time. Feed them or compensate them.

I recognize this routine represents a significant investment of time, and that time is precious. But our situation is dire. We simply must work harder to cover our complex communities in a way that feels accurate and fair to the people we aim to serve, across their many dimensions of difference.

We’ve seen the impact of doing interviews like this. Our research partners found these one-on-one conversations build trust, make people more likely to subscribe, and give journalists a deeper understanding of what they need to do to earn trust. You can hear from some of our partner journalists here.

Understanding your community is worth the effort.

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



Joy Mayer
Trusting News

Director of Trusting News. It’s up to journalists to demonstrate credibility and *earn* trust. Subscribe here: