Bridging the news credibility gap
It has been more than 20 years since I participated in a newspaper credibility project sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
I was editor of The Gazette in Colorado Springs and our organization had been active in several ASNE efforts to bolster newspaper readership.
The ASNE study was, at the time, the most detailed and authoritative examination of newspaper credibility ever undertaken. And it followed a decades-long decline in consumer trust of news media.
The study results were sobering. Trust measures were lower than even the most pessimistic projections. But here is the catch: Trust in general was in decline, to be sure, but news consumers continued to attach higher trust values to their local news organizations.
“We don’t trust the ‘media,’ but we trust our local newspaper,” seemed the prevailing sentiment.
Further, separating print from broadcast organizations showed consumers had greater trust in print.
As a newspaper editor, I took some minimal comfort from those findings. There seemed a window of opportunity for print, some specific steps newspapers might take to grow credibility, not the least of which was focusing on solutions-driven local journalism.
Twenty years later, that window of opportunity is long closed. Recent studies continue to show news consumers view local news outlets somewhat more favorably than the national news media. But with local print continuing its complete and utter collapse, local trust measures do not mean much and, in fact, will likely drop – plummet? – as local newsrooms shrink further, deadlines become earlier, and publication days reduced.
These were some of my thoughts after reading last week about a new credibility study conducted by the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
“The study defines five core principles or beliefs that drive most journalists: Keep watch on public officials and the powerful; amplify voices that often go unheard; society works better with information out in the open; the more facts people have the closer they will get to the truth; and it’s necessary to spotlight a community’s problems to solve them.”
Those core principles echo the values practiced by journalists in all the newsrooms in which I worked. As I have written before, journalism is a values-driven profession. And while the specific language might change, the five values defined by the API/AP study are universally held by most mainstream journalists.
But the API/AP study shows that a majority of Americans do not accept those five values. In fact, the only value to draw majority support was the facts principle.
The findings indicate a Mars/Venus divide. Journalists operate on a core set of principles that a majority of Americans reject.
The result of this divide is damaging to our democracy. If most Americans reject the watchdog role assumed by the press since the founding, what other mechanisms exist to hold the powerful accountable for their actions? If most Americans reject the role of the press in reporting interests of the marginalized, what other system can take on that role?
We have seen the institutions of power corrupted to protect those in power from scrutiny and accountability. Absent an aggressive, watchdog press, how would Americans have known about the Trump administration’s most egregious ethical and legal lapses? While in power, the president was largely able to shield himself from official scrutiny. It was left to the press to report on financial, personal, and legal concerns.
But if you do not believe the press has a role in watch-dogging government and public officials, you are less likely to believe what is being reported, leaving room for false information and conspiracy theories to dominate our political discourse.
Of course, the study reveals a stark political divide behind the findings. Those who identify themselves as Democrats or Democrat leans are far more likely to agree with journalism’s core values while Republicans and Republican leans are overwhelmingly opposed.
Does the new study offer any sort of roadmap for the press as it strives to regain credibility? Not really.
Some suggest there is a greater need than ever to focus on local journalism that is focused on solutions rather than problems. But there is nothing new in that suggestion and all the progress made on that front after the ASNE study 20 years ago has had minimal impact on credibility measures.
That Mars/Venus divide seems insurmountable in the current political climate.
Journalists cannot easily be moved from maintaining core professional values, particularly the watchdog role. And those who believe journalists need to retreat from that value will not be dissuaded.
In the end, the press critics likely will win out. With traditional media collapsing, local watchdog journalism is already diminished. Fewer journalists in the field means fewer journalists watching government and public officials.
In the battle over values, journalism is losing, may already have lost.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020.
Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms with a staff ranging from more than 140 in 2002 to 104 at the time of his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at The Statesman Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette, a Freedom Communications newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an MA in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a BS in journalism from the University of Oregon.
Smith serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board.