UO Project Plumbs Low Trust in Media and How to Restore It

 Two University of Oregon journalism professors conducted four workshops to ask how the news media could earn back public trust that has been steadily declining. They found people want facts separated from opinions, less focus on breaking news and a commitment to news coverage about what’s working and what isn’t.

Two University of Oregon journalism professors conducted four workshops to ask how the news media could earn back public trust that has been steadily declining. They found people want facts separated from opinions, less focus on breaking news and a commitment to news coverage about what’s working and what isn’t.

Trust in US news media is slipping, prompting a pair of University of Oregon journalism professors to set out to find why and how trust could be restored. Their research produced insights such as, “Journalism is a relationship, not a product.”

Launched in July 2017 and called the 32 Percent Project in reference to low new media trust levels record by a Gallup survey, the researchers conducted four workshops (three of them in public libraries) in various parts of the country, engaging more than 50 people in extended conversations about trust and the news media. They quickly moved from asking whether people trusted news media to how news media could earn their trust.

Researchers Lisa Heyamoto and Todd Milbourn gleaned, “People demand that the news earn their trust with authenticity, transparency and real diversity. They want news that is consistently presented and focused on what’s working as well as what isn’t. They hunger for news that reflects a sense of community.”

“Only some of the public’s beliefs about media and information fit easily with journalistic concepts of objectivity, neutrality and the like. Rather than demanding that journalists remain at a cool remove, many participants in these conversations said they want news that digs into the complex realities of their communities with both a critical eye and a shared sense of mission.,” explained Regina Lawrence and Andrew DeVigal with the Agora Journalism Center that funded the research project.

Heyamoto and Milbourn noted participants questioned the integrity of an advertising-based media model and disparaged constant streamers about “Breaking News.”

 An analysis of comments and viewpoints distilled into six key findings that would enable the news media to earn back the trust it has lost and continues to lose.

An analysis of comments and viewpoints distilled into six key findings that would enable the news media to earn back the trust it has lost and continues to lose.

The report centers on six key findings, which Heyamoto and Milbourn cast as “conditions of trust” – Authenticity, transparency, consistency, positivity, diversity and shared mission. Here are some excerpts from the report:

Authenticity: “One of the most consistent themes – one that spanned geography, education level and political affiliation – was the idea that news organizations could build trust if they were more comfortable not just sharing what they know, but [also] explaining what they don’t.”

“I’ll trust a news organization when they use at least three sources to verify and when they admit they may not know the entire story yet.”

Transparency: “Participants in each workshop expressed frustration that journalistic stories seem to contain a blend of fact, analysis and even opinion. Time and again, they said they wanted a much clearer separation, as well as obvious and straightforward labeling to help them distinguish between fact and opinion.”

"I’ll trust a news organization when [journalists] open the studios for a tour and [we] see how you get the news.”

Consistency. “In an age when many people’s news feeds are a chaotic mix of information and entertainment, several participants in Boston said they appreciate news organizations that deploy a standardized, consistent article format. While they enjoy a diversity of content, they said it’s important to know what to expect from an organization when clicking on a particular article. “

Several participants expressed a desire for news organizations to clearly and consistently separate breaking news from other content.

Positivity. “Participants spoke of positivity not just in terms of news content, but in terms of style and presentation. Participants in Pico Rivera (California), Oxford (Mississippi) and Vienna (Illinois), described what they viewed as ‘shouting matches’ on cable news, lamenting what they perceived to be sensationalism and conflict prioritization. As one participant in Pico Rivera put it: ‘You’ve got the three on the right and these three on the left screaming at each other. You can’t even watch that anymore.’”

“Trump called them ‘fake media’ and when it comes down to my community, you all look the same to me. When there is something good going in my neighborhood, I don’t see it. Never. But if somebody shoots somebody, oh, first page.” 

Diversity: “Participants were clear in every community: they said they will not trust a news organization that doesn’t pay sincere and holistic attention to diversity. Across all four communities, participants said they did not see themselves or their lives reflected in the news they consumed,  and expressed an emphatic desire for that to change.”

“I’ll trust a news organization when they are intersectional. They are fair. They don’t promote stereotypes. They show and represent people who look like me. They prioritize mental health.” 

Shared mission. “News organizations have historically functioned as both mirror and mouthpiece of a community. Yet participants in each workshop said they felt that relationship had frayed. They said they did not feel the news organizations they encountered were working for them, or with them. They said they wanted to know that journalists were part of the community, were invested in its success and were genuinely interested in maintaining relationships with their neighbors.” 

"I’ll trust a news organization when I know it truly cares about the community it serves.”

“Building trust is critical for the future of journalism and democracy,” Milbourn says. “But you can’t effectively build trust until you understand what drives and disrupts it. That’s what this project is all about — developing a deeper understanding of those dynamics.”