Story by Kenny Jacoby
Minutes after Donald Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, a group of journalists convened at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia Digital Conference in Portland to discuss ways to restore the public’s trust in media during the Trump era.
Most of the journalists in attendance worked for alternative weekly newspapers, whose coverage is more locally focused and targeted toward audiences younger than those of daily newspapers.
The issue of trust for local media is “more an opportunity than a threat,” said Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, executive director of The Media Consortium. She encouraged alt-weekly newspapers to take advantage of their locality and the fact that many Americans don’t trust big, coastal news outlets.
According to a September poll by Gallup, Americans’ trust in mass media has sunk to a new low: Only 32 percent of respondents — and 26 percent of those aged 18 to 49 — said they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media. It is the lowest percentage since Gallup began taking the poll in 1972.
One journalist in attendance, Mark Baumgarten of Seattle Weekly, said the issue perhaps is not so much about the public’s mistrust, but rather its disagreement with what is reported in the media. He referred specifically to the comments section of articles and said labeling people as “trolls” has contributed to the problem.
“There are lots of misinformed people out there,” Baumgarten said. “They may be angry and unclear in their message, but they’re trying to communicate.”
Baumgarten said the Seattle Weekly instituted a new policy after the election about dealing with people in the comments section: If someone says something the newspaper reported is incorrect, the reporter will provide that person a link that disproves the claims or ask for a link to information that disproves their reporting. If the person does not provide a link, the newspaper issues a warning to stop spreading misinformation or risk being excluded from future discussions.
Camilla Mortensen, editor of Eugene Weekly, said her newspaper cut off the comments section altogether. Instead, Eugene Weekly allows its readers’ discussions to take place in the comments section of Facebook posts promoting the article, where Mortensen said comments tend to be “less racist and weird.”
University of Oregon Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism Damian Radcliffe, who has recently released research into the future of local news as a fellow in Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, suggested that alt-weekly papers focus on reporting stories that can’t necessarily be found elsewhere. He says they could consider revisiting the types of stories they tell, perhaps by making them more solutions-driven — focusing on responses to social issues as opposed to just the problems themselves.
“Don’t think of advocacy as a dirty word,” he said.
Radcliffe said local media must show readers they have their backs and give them a reason to buy and support their product. He offered several empirical suggestions for what news outlets can do to restore trust with their communities. They include:
- Engage with your audience in different ways, such as by hosting events and doubling down on partnerships in the community.
- Do more in terms of labeling stories, because audiences don’t always know the difference between news, wire news, commentary, sponsored content and user-generated content.
- Revisit stories and trumpet your successes more, or your audience will forget about them.
- Be more transparent about why stories matter to help build news literacy.
Kenny Jacoby is an SOJC senior majoring in journalism with a background in computer science. He is the sports editor for the Daily Emerald, a freelancer for The Register-Guard, an intern for the Eugene Weekly and a research assistant at the SOJC. See his online portfolio at kennyjacoby.com and follow him on Twitter @kennyjacoby.