Note: This post was originally published in the daily newsletter from the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer
Most — if not all — journalists likely share a commitment to a set of journalistic values, including a belief that those in power should be subject to some kind of oversight, that transparency is the right approach to important information, that facts are required to get to the truth, that the less powerful deserve a voice, and that revealing the flaws in society helps us to deal with them. But do news and journalism consumers share a commitment to or belief in these values? A study published on Wednesday by the Media Insight Project, a joint venture of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, suggests that many do not, and that this could help explain why there has been a crisis in trust when it comes to mainstream journalism. The authors say their study shows that uneasiness with these core values of journalism crosses ideological boundaries, and the bottom line is that “when journalists say they are just doing their jobs, the problem is many people harbor doubts about what the job should be.”
Only one of the five core journalism values that the study used as part of its survey was supported by a majority of those who responded, and that was the idea that facts help get us closer to the truth, which was agreed to by 67 percent of those who replied the the survey. The principle that had the lowest amount of support — just 29 percent of respondents — was the idea that the best way to make society better is to highlight its problems. And only 11 percent of those who took the survey fully supported all five of the journalistic values mentioned above. “Rather than distrust toward the media being tied only to the perception of partisan bias,” the study’s authors say, “the problem at the heart of the media trust crisis may be skepticism about the underlying purpose and mission journalists are trying to fulfill.” The debate over trust in news has seemed intractable, the study says, because it involves “journalists believing they are just doing their jobs and critics seeing clear signs of political leaning and the denials of journalists as proof of dishonesty.”
According to the API’s research, people who put more emphasis on authority and loyalty tend to be more skeptical about fundamental journalism principles. These people put a high value on respect for leaders and groups, and according to the study “they worry that some of the things journalists believe in can be intrusive and get in the way of officials doing their jobs. This group would like to see more stories about what works, not just what is going wrong.” In other words, people in this group tend to see journalistic principles as emphasizing the negative and threatening established order. Only 33 percent of the people in this category believe that the news media in general are trustworthy, the study says, and only about 15 percent think the press cares about them, or that the press is morally upstanding. Interestingly, this group is evenly split between political conservatives and moderates, the study says: half said they are Republicans, 30 percent said Democrats, and the remainder identified themselves as political independents.
So what can journalists and media outlets do in this kind of environment? One thing the API study recommends is that they consider reworking stories in order to broaden their appeal to people who belong to multiple groups — those who prefer order and have respect for leaders, those who feel the powerless deserve a voice, and so on. The authors of the research took some basic news stories and rewrote them to emphasize different aspects of the moral attributes in each group, including reworking the lead sentence and headline to emphasize the values of authority or loyalty to the community. In some cases, the authors also added an additional paragraph to the story that emphasized a different moral angle. No facts were changed. The researchers say this editing made some of the stories that were handled this way more appealing to all types of people, and also increased the feeling that the news story was trustworthy, and balanced.
Thinking about these different categories of readers and their moral beliefs could also help media outlets appeal to their readers for financial support, the API study suggests. “To woo subscribers, the media will need to vary its messaging beyond traditional appeals about journalism being a watchdog,” the authors argue. They tested different kinds of messaging in appealing for support for a local news organization, and what they found was that people who tend to empashize care for the powerless were more responsive to messages that emphasized the outlet’s commitment to protecting the vulnerable. Those who said they cared more about authority and loyalty seemed to prefer messaging that stressed the organization’s long-term service to the community. “As publishers continue to explore reader revenue as an important part of their sustainability, understanding these and other nuances across the communities they serve may help their pursuits,” the study says.
Here’s more on news and trust:
Open mind: “I must confess that my first impulse was to resist these findings. After all, I’ve spent decades with the ideas described above as my lodestar, convinced that journalism serves the public good. And after all, investigative journalism is built on the idea of being society’s watchdog,” writes Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post‘s media columnist, in a piece about the API research. “However, given that trust in the news media has fallen from about 70 percent in the early 1970s to about 40 percent now, according to Gallup — it seems worth viewing this report with an open mind.”
Weak trust: A 2017 study from the API that looked at trust in the media found that many Americans were skeptical of the news media in general, but trusted the news sources that they relied on for information about news events. “Americans appear to consider the news media as a general category that includes both good and bad actors, and their confidence in the media in general is shrinking,” the study said, but people said they could still find news sources that they thought were “accurate, fair, moral, transparent about mistakes, and trustworthy.” Americans under 40 tended to trust the media far less than older readers.
Partisan divide: For its 2020 American Views survey, Gallup and the Knight Foundation polled more than 20,000 US adults and found “continued pessimism and further partisan entrenchment about how the news media delivers on its democratic mandate for factual, trustworthy information,” according to the study. Many Americans, it reported, “feel the media’s critical roles of informing and holding those in power accountable are compromised by increasing bias. As such, Americans have not only lost confidence in the ideal of an objective media, they believe news organizations actively support the partisan divide.”
Other notable stories:
Three digital media veterans are launching a new paid subscription media company funded by 40 North Media and private equity giant TPG Growth, according to a report from Axios. The co-founders are Joe Purzycki, co-founder of the podcast company Luminary, Jon Kelly, a former New York Times editor and founder of Vanity Fair’s “The Hive,” and longtime digital media executive and early Athletic employee Max Tcheyan. The company, known as Heat Media, plans to give journalists the technology and marketing support needed to help them build their audiences, and let them share in the subscription revenue.
Hong Kong media mogul and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai has told the staff of his publication, Apple Daily, to “stand tall” in a letter from prison, days before being sentenced in two of several cases against him. He is in jail on remand after prosecutors successfully appealed against a court decision to grant him bail on national security charges. On Tuesday, Apple Daily published a handwritten letter Lai sent to staff, urging them to take care of themselves. “Freedom of speech is a dangerous job,” he wrote. “Please be careful not to take risks. Your own safety is very important.”
Investigative journalist James Risen writes for The Intercept about the ongoing battle between whistleblowers and the journalists who report on their leaks, and the government’s desire to punish them both. And the media doesn’t help, he says. “Press coverage of leak investigations and prosecutions follows a depressingly predictable narrative arc,” Risen writes. “The whistleblower who is a source for a story is depicted as a criminal who has been cornered and arrested by the heroic FBI, while the investigative reporter who broke the story is described as an accessory to a crime. The press unquestioningly plays up any supposed evidence presented by the government that the reporter made mistakes that were somehow the reason for the whistleblower’s arrest and prosecution.”
The Marshall Project writes about its decision to avoid terms like inmate and felon when talking about people who are held in correctional facilities. “The words we use to describe people being held in correctional facilities are among the most controversial in journalism,” it says. “Reporters, editors and criminal justice professionals have long assumed that terms such as ‘inmate,’ ‘felon‚’ and ‘offender’ are clear, succinct and neutral. But a vocal segment of people within or directly affected by the criminal justice system argue that these words narrowly — and permanently — define human beings by their crimes and punishments.”
Gabby Miller writes for CJR about what the future holds for non-profit newsrooms. “Newsrooms are experimenting with alternatives to business models that disproportionately rely on advertising revenue,” Miller writes. “This model has been seen from Oakland, California to Waterbury, Vermont. However, it’s not clear how much ground the nonprofit news model––which primarily entails philanthropic funding and charitable donations––can make up for in a rapidly shrinking for-profit local news ecosystem in the US. Some experts warn of heightened competition for funding and systemic inequities in philanthropic giving.”
Vice said it has removed an article that drew widespread criticism for including photographs of Khmer Rouge victims in Cambodia that had been doctored to show some of the dead smiling. “This story previously included photos from artist Matt Loughrey that were modified beyond colorization,” says a note from the company posted at the story’s original location. “After reviewing this article, and subsequent work from the artist that was featured on VICE and included doctored images of Khmer Rouge victims, this article has been removed because it does not meet our editorial standards. We apologize for the error.”
Pipewrench, a new digital magazine, launched this week with a feature essay on the pandemic and race, along with companion pieces by a poet, a biblical scholar, a sociologist, a musician, a public servant, an educator and a journalist. The magazine was co-founded by Michelle Weber, a former senior editor at Longreads, and Catherine Cusick, a digital editor and audience strategist from Austin, Texas. Each issue will consist of a longform story and other pieces either reacting to or related to the same topic, they said. “Expect contributions from film critics, activists, theologians, sociologists, poets, chefs, sportswriters, flash fiction specialists. A rotating group of people from a range of perspectives and disciplines.”
The annual White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner has been canceled for the second year in a row due to the coronavirus pandemic, the association reported in an email to reporters on Wednesday. “We have worked through any number of scenarios over the last several months, but to put it plainly: while improving rapidly, the COVID-19 landscape is just not at a place where we could make the necessary decisions to go ahead with such a large indoor event,” the association wrote.