News In Trouble, Part III: Time To Rewrite The Story

By Frank F Islam & Ed Crego, August 18, 2022 (Image credits: Tom de Boor, Adobe, et al)

This is the third part of a three-part series on News in America. Part 1 provided the consumers’ perspective on the news. Part 2 presented journalists’ thoughts and industry data. This part sets out improvement recommendations…

The News in America is in trouble. Consumers think that. Journalists think that.

It is time to rewrite that story because, as discussed in our earlier blogs, the news has been in a downward trajectory in this 21st century. If that trajectory is allowed to continue, it will become a death spiral — not only for the news, but for our democracy as we have known it.

That is the very bad news. The good news is that there are numerous initiatives in place, and recommendations that have been proposed, that can be drawn upon for the rewriting. In this blog, we review some of the more important ones related to trust in the news; disinformation and the social media; and the consuming public.

Rebuild Trust in the News Media

In Gallup polls conducted in the 20th century, those who said that they had a great deal/fair amount” of trust in the news media — such as newspapers, TV and radio — to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly ran from a high of 72% in the mid-1970’s and bottomed out at 55% in the late ‘90’s . Because of the political, and cultural divides that exist and have been sewn into America in the current century, it will be probably be impossible to ever achieve that 50% level or higher again.

That is not a pessimistic assessment, but a realistic one. Two reports illustrate its validity. A July 8, 2022 Axios article written by Sara Fischer, after trust in the news hit a historic low of 16% for newspapers and 11% for television news in the Gallup poll, points out the “trust fall in the news media has been driven mostly by Republicans according to the data” and adds “the media trust gap between Democrats and Republicans began to widen during the Bush and Obama presidencies.”

Political affiliation is driving trust in the news down. So too, according to the American Press Institute (API), is what we emphasize in our “moral values” (i.e. care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity).

In a study released in April 2021, the API reported that of those people surveyed, only 11% fully supported the five core journalism values (factualism, giving voice to the less powerful, oversight, transparency, social criticism) that were tested. At the high end, 67% supported ‘factualism,” and at the low end only 29% supported “social criticism.” The other three core journalism values scored in the 40% range.

The study disclosed that those “people who put most value on authority and loyalty tend to be more skeptical about fundamental journalism principles.” (Politically, half of those people were Republican, 3 in 10 were Democrats, and 2 in 10 independents). It also found that “People who care deeply about all five moral values, are generally supportive of journalism principles…”

No matter whether it is because of their political and/or moral compasses, there are those in the public who will never trust the news in general or news that comes from sources outside their own personal spheres. There are those news consumers, on the other hand, who are persuadable and who can help move the needle higher on the trust scale.

Three broad strategies journalists and those in the news industry can employ to accomplish this are: sustain independent reporting and accountability journalism; focus on accuracy, bias and transparency; and promote solutions journalism.

Sustain Independent Reporting and Accountability Journalism

In October 2009, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism issued a report titled The Reconstruction of American Journalism (Journalism Reconstruction Report). The Journalism Reconstruction Report described the shrinking size and substance of newspapers.

The key losses on the substantive side were in the areas of independent reporting and accountability journalism. As the Report noted,

‘What is under threat is independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis, and community knowledge, particularly in the coverage of local affairs.”

Accountability journalism is the “watchdog” function of the press. It ensures scrutiny of those in power and influence in a free society.

With the exception of a few behemoths, independent reporting and accountability journalism has continued to shrink in the more than a decade since the Reconstruction Report was issued. In spite of this, there are still journalists in papers and on TV stations across this country who are devoted to their craft.

They need to keep on keeping on and, as the Reconstruction Report recommended, be invested in by governments and philanthropists in order to enable them to provide information to those citizens who are in search for the truth and who understand that a free and a democratic society depends on a free media.

Focus on Accuracy, Bias, and Transparency

In September 2018, the Knight Foundation, in collaboration with Gallup, conducted a survey to identify indicators that influence the public’s perception of trust in the news. The survey showed that, in both open-ended responses and in reviewing a list of 35 potential indicators of trust, “accuracy and bias” were at the top of the list. In addition, transparency emerged as a third prominent factor being cited by 71% as “very important.”

This prompted the Knight Foundation, in its report presenting the findings of the study, to conclude:

These results indicate that attempts to restore trust in the media among most Americans may be fruitful, particularly if those efforts are aimed at improving accuracy, enhancing transparency, and reducing bias. The results also indicate that reputations for partisan leaning is a crucial driver of media distrust, and one that may matter more for people themselves than they realize.

These findings, in conjunction with the Pew Research survey of nearly 12,000 U.S.-based journalists, which found those journalists said the news industry does the worst job in “Getting the story right (23%) and being unbiased (20%), compels naming improving accuracy, enhancing transparency and reducing bias a core strategy for trust-building with those consumers who are open-minded and persuadable.

Promote Solutions Journalism

The third strategy for trust-building is solutions journalism. Amanda Ripley advocated for solutions journalism in her Washington Post column, which we discussed in the first blog of this series.

In her article, Ms. Ripley opines that the news is many times too negative, stating “There is a way to communicate news — including very bad news — that leaves us off better as a result.

She quotes Dan Bornstein, co-founder of the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network, “The world will get better when people understand problems, threats, and challenges, and what their best options are to make progress.” According to Ripley, Bornstein and his colleagues have now trained “over 25,000 journalists to do high-quality solution stories all over the world.”

So, what is solutions journalism? In brief, “Solutions journalism investigates and explains in a critical and clear-eyed way, how people try to solve widely shared problems.”

Solutions journalism has four pillars:

1. A solutions story focuses on a RESPONSE to a social problem — how it has worked or why it hasn’t.

2. The best solutions reporting provides lessons and offers INSIGHT.

3. Solution journalism looks for EVIDENCE — data or qualitative results that show effectiveness (or lack thereof).

4. Solutions stories reveal a response’s shortcomings and LIMITATIONS.

Solutions journalism is a necessity for these troubling and trying times. It is an essential element for the news trust-building portfolio.

Declare War on Disinformation and Social Media Abuse

In order to rebuild trust in the news, it is important for providers of truthful news to step forward, adapt, and be supported. It is just as critical to combat and confront those who promulgate and promote fake news.

Contrary to what the former President said repeatedly when he was in office, and his avid followers believe until today, the proponents of fake news are not those in the traditional news media. They are the purveyors of disinformation and those who abuse social media in order to destroy our trust in each other, our institutions, and our democracy.

The war against disinformation and the “dis-informers” has been being fought for some time. In 2009, when disinformation was not as dishonest and dishonorable as it has become over the past decade and more, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities issued an important report titled Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age (Informing Communities Report)

The Informing Communities Report presented three ambitious objectives:

1. Maximizing the availability of relevant and credible information to all Americans and their communities.

2. Strengthening the capacity of individuals to engage with information.

3. Promoting individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.

It also provides 15 recommendations that have become even more relevant in these times, which have become increasingly fractious and contentious due to some who use their social media platforms to lie and to stoke anger and outrage.

As we noted in a blog posted in May, Barack Obama called attention to this social media contamination and inflammation in an April 21 speech at Stanford University on democracy and disinformation. In his remarks, Obama observed:

All we see is a constant feed of content where useful factual information and happy diversions and cat videos flow alongside lies, conspiracy theories, junk science, quackery, White supremacist, racist tracts, misogynistic screeds. And over time, we lose our capacity to distinguish fact, opinion, and wholesale fiction. Or maybe we just stop caring.

Before his speech, Obama presented a Disinformation and Democracy Reading List on Medium for those who have not stopped caring. That List includes the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder Final Report (Report), which was issued on November 15, 2021.

The Commission worked for six months to produce this Report which opens as follows:

America is in a crisis of trust and truth. Bad information is as prevalent, persuasive, and persistent as good information, creating a chain reaction of harm. It makes any health crisis more deadly. It slows down response time on climate change. It undermines democracy.

The Report offers “…a viable framework for action…,” with a total of 15 recommendations targeted on government, private industry, and civil society. Four of those Recommendations are directed at Increasing Transparency. Six at Building Trust. And five at Reducing Harms.

All of the recommendations are important. We highlight one from each category below:

  • Increasing Transparency Recommendation

Ad Transparency: Require social media companies to regularly disclose, in a standardized format, key information about every digital ad and paid post that runs on their platforms.

  • Building Trust Recommendation

Accountability Norms: Promote new norms that create personal and professional consequences within communities and networks for individuals who willfully violate the public trust and use their privilege to harm the public.

  • Reducing Harms Recommendation

Comprehensive Federal Approach: Establish a comprehensive strategic approach to countering disinformation and the spread of misinformation, including a centralized national response strategy, clearly defined roles and responsibilities across the Executive Branch, and identified gaps in authorities and capabilities.

The Aspen Institute’s Report with its emphasis on targeted interventions provides a perfect counterpoint to the Knight Commission’s emphasis on education. Both are important in the battle that must be waged against disinformation and the culprits who would use it an attempt to tear this nation and its principles apart.

Cultivate the News Consumers

As stated earlier, there is a segment of news consumers who will never trust the news, no matter what is done, and there are those who relish consuming disinformation and social media maligning of those on the “other side.” Nothing will ever bring them into the truthful news-supporting fold.

Fortunately, there are a large number of news readers and followers who can be recruited to the fold. The actions outlined under the rebuilding trust and declaring war subsections of this blog will go a long way toward getting them to re-enlist in the citizens’ news militia.

There are two primary means for accomplishing this. The first is to ensure that the news contains information that’s objective or neutral in orientation or is material that appeals to personal interests. The second is for the consumer her or himself to be able to manage their consumption of the news.

poll conducted by Economist/YouGov in late March of this year documented how extremely difficult it is to get a majority of citizens to trust any news source as being neutral or objective in its coverage. The Economist/YouGov survey found that “…there are very few organizations that are trusted by more than a small proportion of Americans on both sides of the political aisle.” It also revealed the sources that are trusted the most “rarely cover domestic politics.” They were the Weather Channel (52%); BBC (39%); PBS (41%); and The Wall Street Journal (37%).

Given this, what can news sources do to attract and keep new followers? There are a range of options, based upon what news organizations have done successfully over the past several years.

One answer would be to provide regular articles targeted by demographics (e.g., age, race, sex) and psychographics (e.g., conservative, liberal).

Another answer would be to add features or sections that are distinctive. For example, the New York Times in the past few years has issued special sections on museums and puzzles, and last year the Washington Post initiated a newsletter called The Optimist which presents inspiring stories.

A third answer addressed to the largest audience would be to intensify and expand the coverage of information, issues, and events that are close to home by delivering more local news.

In 2009, the Columbia University Journalism Reconstruction Report noted that local new was imperiled, stating:

Local news coverage remains underfunded, understaffed, and a low priority at most public radio and television stations….

As newspapers sharply reduce their staffs and news reporting to cut costs and survive, they also reduce their value to readers and communities.

The State of the Local News The 2022 Report (Local News Report) issued by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communication on June 29, documents that local news is in an even more perilous state today. The Local News Report finds that:

  • An average of more than two newspapers are disappearing weekly. Since 2005, the U.S. has lost more than one quarter of its newspapers (2,500) and is on track to lose a third by 2025.
  • More than seventy million Americans live in 208 counties without a newspaper, or in 1,630 counties with only one paper — usually weekly — covering multiple communities spread over a vast area. These “news deserts” are primarily communities that are poorer, older, and lack affordable and reliable high-speed digital service.
  • Due to consolidation, many of the remaining local newspapers are controlled by national chains such as Gannet, and regional chains such as Paxton Media. Less than a third of the nation’s 5,147 weeklies and only 10 out of the 100 largest circulation dailies are currently independent.

Those statistics attest that if the situation is not reversed, “local news” may soon become an oxymoron.

The Local News Report states that “Getting news to those communities that have lost the news involves rethinking journalistic practices — as well as for profit, nonprofit, and public funding policies at the national, state and local levels.” It goes on to explain that “Recent legislative, philanthropic, university, and industry initiatives contemplate a range of solutions — including public funding of local news, journalistic collaboration by news organizations, experimentation with new nonprofit and hybrid business models, and investments in alternative news options that target new audiences.”

There is no question that the news industry and its supporters are trying to rewrite the story of the news. They will not be able to do that successfully, however, without the help of readers, viewers, and followers of the news who are not news-averse, but who have diminished their news consumption because they so “can’t take it anymore.”

They engage in selective news avoidance, which is rationing or limiting their exposure to the news — or at least certain types of news. As we discussed, in the first blog in this series, Amanda Ripley confessed, in her Washington Post article titled “I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me — or the product?,” that she is one of those selective news avoiders.

In our opinion, the answer is neither Ripley nor the product but the catastrophic times and the context which we are trying to navigate successfully. These are indeed times that try men’s (and women’s) souls. And, these are also times that tax our minds and hearts.

Given this, each of us needs to be able to chart a course for news consumption that makes sense personally. How to do that and what to do will vary from individual to individual.

Jenny Taitz, a clinical psychologist provided some information that could prove useful in making that determination in her July 7 article for the New York Times. Taitz begins her piece by stating, “Following nonstop news in an era of gun violence, war, and political divide can become overwhelming. And amid our many ongoing challenges — the pandemic, climate change, economic uncertainty — it’s understandable to feel sad, angry and anxious.”

She proceeds to say she has clients who “can’t stop doom scrolling”, others who “tune it out,” and “many who bounce between the two extremes.” Taitz then advances seven mindfulness strategies to use to stay grounded.

In an abbreviated form, they are:

1. Label your feelings. Name the emotion you are feeling — e.g., sadness, fear disgust.

2. Allow yourself to feel emotions. Don’t become emotionally detached — learn to manage your emotions, not to avoid them.

3. Practice different types of empathy. Acknowledge and understand the issues of others, but don’t “overly identify” with their experiences.

4. Take action. Invest the time to think and determine the way(s) to contribute to causes that are important to you.

5. Rethink your words. Don’t overstate painful circumstances; use thoughtful phrases or reflective phrases.

6. Invest in a joy practice. Connect with something or someone that inspires or makes you feel better.

7. Honor your limits without losing sight of the problems and pain. Pick times to consume the news.

All and each of these strategies can be employed to achieve mental and emotional balance in one’s daily life. The final one to “honor your limits” is the most useful in terms of its direct relationship to the news.

Taitz advises, “Think about specific time of the day, say morning and mid-afternoon, when you want to keep up with the news, rather than endlessly scrolling or keeping it on in the background. Taking a break doesn’t mean you don’t care. It’s about hitting pause so you can return to facing challenges in the world and trying to make a real difference.”

Passionate people make a difference, as do passionate journalists who pursue their profession and commitment to making this democracy and the world a better, fairer, and healthier place for all.

The free press and truthful news have been at the center of this country since its founding. Rebuilding trust in the news; Declaring war on disinformation and social media and; Cultivating the news consumers will keep it in the center. It will enable rewriting not only story of the news in America but the story of America itself throughout the rest of this 21st century.