Renee Farmer

Nov 11, 2020

3 min read

Public Trust of the Media

With increasing access to the tools needed to share information, journalists must now prove themselves to be more trustworthy than just anybody with a smartphone and internet connection.

Public trust of the media is notoriously low. According a Pew Research study titled “Americans See Skepticism of News Media as Healthy, Say Public Trust in the Institution Can Improve,” only 6% of U.S. adults say they have a “great deal” of confidence in the news media.

Public trust is particularly important in the arena of community journalism, where the news often takes a deeper dive into the personal lives of its audience.

Jock Lauterer writes in “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local” that “for a community newspaper to work at its optimum pitch, there must be an active reciprocal relationship between the town and press.”

Community journalism is all about relationships, and relationships require trust. So how have we failed to earn and maintain public trust, and how can we do better?

Sources are key to the credibility of a story, and according to Pew Research, 57% of U.S. adults say news outlets do not too or not at all well at informing their audiences about how sources are chosen. This uncertainty leaves room for doubt about the trustworthiness of the reporting.

Many journalists try to combat this uncertainty and potential for skepticism by using the two-sources rule mentioned by multiple journalists surveyed in the study “Verification as a Strategic Ritual.” However, as these media professionals noted, there is room for error in the sources’ recounting of events. While a journalist may have chosen the best sources, a source’s memory could fail them.

Participants in this study also pointed out that, “Written prescriptions for verification routines are unknown in daily news reporting.” News media lacks a standard procedure for verifying that the information used in a piece is accurate and trustworthy. The higher the stakes, these journalists say, the more verification that ought to be done before the article is published.

And the stakes are high in community journalism. Incorrect information could turn neighbor against neighbor or friend against friend. The consequences of misleading information within a community aren’t just a misunderstanding of a distant event. They are broken relationships and misinformed actions.

Accuracy continues to provide a “strong common ideal” for journalists, according to participants in the verification study. However, this is not fully reflected in the 61% of Americans who expect the news they get to be accurate, according to Pew Research. If the public cannot trust the accuracy of journalistic content, then we become no different than a citizen with a smartphone.

A main concern for Americans when it comes to news media is conflicts of interest. According to Pew Research, 80% of Americans think financial and corporate interests at least “somewhat” influence the news, specifically 38% who believe they have “a great deal” of influence. An important aspect of public trust is people being able to trust that the media is on their side, rather than on the side of whatever corporation is funneling them the most money. People who feel valued by their news sources view them more positively, as more accurate and transparent, according to Pew Research.

With all this being said, Pew Research reports that 75% percent of Americans say their level of confidence in journalists can improve. This is promising, and we should make it our goal to raise this number. It must be earned, through ethical sourcing of stories, thorough verification of facts, and elimination of conflicts of interest.

Communities — and the journalists who share their stories — will be better for a healthy, trusting relationship with one another.