Trust is our currency, and we’re running low
For weeks, I’ve been staring at a copy of Editor & Publisher on my desk, knowing I’d have to deal with it in this column at some point.
I’ve tried to avoid E&P’s nasty two-page spread full of charts and graphs, one of which keeps croaking at me like Poe’s raven: A survey of 4,407 college students in four-year programs found 59% of college kids had not much trust or no trust at all in the media in 2018, up from 50% the year before.
That’s incredibly disheartening, because, more than circulation and ad revenue, trust is a newspaper’s most valuable currency.
And ol’ E&P says we’re running low.
Newspapers tend to be like Congress, when it comes to public opinion. People generally dislike Congress but like their congressman or congresswoman. And they tend to dislike “the media,” but like their local paper.
But I have started to notice things bleeding into the local market. All my career, when I have written things people didn’t like, I’ve been accused of being biased (I’ve been called both a Democrat and a Republican) or accused of chasing scandals to sell papers. But I’ve never, until recently, been called “fake news” and dismissed whole cloth.
Part of me wants to blame it on the times, the current tendency of our social media culture to dismiss any facts with which we don’t already agree.
The Atlantic, in a piece wonderfully titled “This article won’t change your mind,” covers all the research revealing our inclination to make partisan judgements (read the full article here: https://tinyurl.com/glvopyp).
Researchers, for example, showed a group of people unlabeled photographs of the crowds at Barack Obama’s and Donald Trump’s inaugurations. Trump supporters tended to wrongly identify the larger crowd as Trump’s, and a small subset of Trump supporters continued to insist their man had the bigger crowd, even when they were shown photographic evidence to the contrary.
I wish I could point to that and say people trust us less because readers no longer want to accept truth for truth’s sake.
But that would let newspapers off the hook for a lot of things we could do to refill our coffers of reader confidence:
∫ The media should stop writing so much about political polls. The 2012 and 2016 elections made a laughingstock of the whole premise that those polls are any indication of who might win an election.
Polls play an important role in politics, because perception can become reality, a successful poll leading to big fundraising, which means more advertising and more successful polls.
But readers remember that both Obama and Trump were victorious in spite of the poll consensus. And routine stories showing who’s up and who’s down — especially more than a year before any votes are cast — just gives readers one more thing they can reject.
∫ National outlets use anonymous sources far too often, especially on stories about palace intrigue and mini-scandals.
I’ve written about this before, but anonymous sources should be saved for only the most pressing stories on national security or matters of similar importance. And even then, they should be used only as a last resort, because it’s too easy to dismiss a faceless source.
∫ Speaking of which, the media should stop covering palace intrigue almost all together.
The stories about mini-scandals — who likes who and who doesn’t, who called who a name, who was allowed to attend which meeting — are usually useless. Unless a reporter can show that whatever mini-scandal they’re writing about is somehow hampering the effectiveness of government (which does happen), those tabloid tidbits should be saved for the inevitable library of books written about each administration.
∫ Our national periodicals need to get off the coasts.
One of the most obvious takeaways from the 2016 post-mortem is that the media writ large failed to forecast a Trump presidency largely because the money men and kingmakers in places like New York and Washington said it couldn’t happen.
Most outlets completely (or almost completely) missed the swell of Trump support and Clinton apathy bubbling in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania because they spent too little time there.
The media’s blind spots weren’t as large as its critics would have you believe, but, certainly, they would have written different stories throughout the election if they spent more time in the heartland.
Some outlets, like the Washington Post, seem to have learned that lesson, with more datelines since 2016 from places like Des Moines, Minneapolis, and Madison, but we need to see even more.
If we do those things, if we talk directly to our readers in a transparent way and write about things that matter to them, I think we can earn back their trust.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.