When the Society of Professional Journalists came to Casper this winter to kick off a sweeping study on media trust, the organization hoped to learn not only why people in the conservative heart of America distrust the media so much, but also what the industry itself could change to address the issue.
While no silver bullet was produced, the organization hopes it has a template for progress that news organizations from the smallest radio station to the New York Times can use to heal the divide between the press and the audiences it serves.
This weekend, the group released its wide-ranging report on media trust, dubbed The Casper Project, in San Antonio at the annual Excellence in Journalism Conference. The report presents news organizations and consumers with insight on why audiences mistrust the media, as well as ideas about what can be done to counter it.
The report — written over six months by Rod Hicks, the organization’s “journalist on call” — attempts to identify the root of audience mistrust through anecdotes from project participants while examining the role local and national journalists play in crafting the narratives that inform consumers every day.
“What I do believe is the strength of this report is the comments of its participants,” Hicks said Monday in an interview with the Star-Tribune. “The report could have been double the size it was if I included all of those in there.”
Among the topics broached throughout the course of product were the topics covered by the media — and how they could be presented in a way some may perceive as biased — as well as the parallels between some members of the national news media and the entertainment industry, a parallel picked up on by both liberal and conservative participants in the project.
But the conclusions of the report, Hicks said, aren’t just about what the media can do to improve public trust: A lot of the responsibility falls on the consumer to consider the sources of the media they consume, part of which could be aided through initiatives like media literacy.
“There has to be some thought about how you do it and who you do it for,” Hicks said of media literacy. “It’s already been done in middle school and at the high school and college levels. And this might be subjective, but I believe there is probably less being done for people who are no longer in school. I think that’s the group we should be doing that for.”
Hicks’ report generally stuck to observations of each individual session and discussions among the project’s participants, which at its start included 16 conservatives, a dozen liberals and seven moderates. Sessions were structured around different components of media trust, such as like media literacy, recognizing and understanding bias, and learning about the operations of the newsrooms in their backyards.
From these open-ended sessions, Hicks produced a list of seven takeaways describing the shortcomings of the media — a lack of communication with their audience, a lack of representation, a perception of too much negative coverage of the president — and of the audience itself, including a demonstrated misunderstanding of the difference between “commentary” or “opinion” pieces and hard news articles.
Hicks said solving this is a possible, if complicated, task — one that local media outlets can have an outsize role in solving. In a list of recommendations to media outlets contained in the report, Hicks encouraged journalists to go beyond listening to their audiences and actively engage with them and explain what they choose to cover and how they cover it. Additionally, journalists should scrutinize their work and parse out any unconscious bias that may be in it, be it a harsh adjective or a lack of balance in their sourcing.
“The important thing is to engage people; let them know they have a voice,” Hicks said. “You need to listen to what they’re saying and assume there’s some validity to what they’re saying. As a news organization, you have to have an open mind about what they’re telling you that they perceive to be a problem with your news organization. There needs to be open minds on two sides.”
It’s all about Trump
Hicks noted that local news often took a backseat in the group’s discussions.
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Throughout the report, Hicks highlighted many moments of tension between members of the group with different political persuasions, each of whom had their own interpretations of what constituted media bias. And sprinkled throughout the 33-page report, Hicks highlighted numerous moments showing that much of the audience’s distrust of the media lay not with local journalists or hometown media outlets but with the national mainstream media.
Much of the reason for that, Hicks said, has to do with President Donald Trump.
“He is such a dominant figure in the United States,” Hicks said. “And he’s a polarizing figure, where lines are drawn between people trying to protect him and people trying to say he’s crazy. It’s that dynamic you’re seeing — I can’t draw the conclusion that they are less interested in what’s happening locally than what they’re seeing nationally.”
Though those participating in the project made the national media their focus throughout the six months of discussions, Hicks said he still believes the local media still has a significant role in helping to rebuild trust in the institution of journalism.
Media trust, Hicks noted, has been degrading for decades and will not be rebuilt overnight. However, he highlighted in his report that he believes engaging the audience — as evidenced by the positive comments from several participants — could act as a crucial first step.
Even if you don’t win someone back immediately, Hicks said, engaging the audience at least plants a seed that the media might not be as dishonest as they thought, or at the very least that they do their best to get all the facts before going to print.
“If somebody can’t be reached and has no interest in opening their mind and listening, I just wouldn’t worry about them,” Hicks said. “They’re always going to be there — they’re not going to go away — and there’s nothing we can do to change their minds. It’s not as if you’re not making progress just because there are a few people you can’t reach.”
“But the value of this exercise is still valid, even though nobody changed their mind over how they feel about the press or changed their news consumption habits,” he added. “People left more educated, and some indicated they did become more convinced the press tries hard to get it right. And that’s a good thing.”
While not involved in the study itself, the Star-Tribune cooperated with the Society of Professional Journalists’ efforts in Casper. The newspaper hosted participants for a newsroom tour, and editor Josh Wolfson spoke on panels in Casper and San Antonio.
Publisher Dale Bohren said Monday the organization is already planning to increase engagement with its readers.
“We hear almost daily from readers with comments or perspectives about our fact-based reporting, the opinion pages and other content,” he said in a statement. “What individuals know about how their government is working, or not, and how we move forward as a community often depends on what is reported in the newspaper. We take that responsibility very seriously. But the Casper Project deepened the conversation about the reality and the perception of truth in local media coverage in general.”
“The project has had impact on Star-Tribune, and we plan to continue the conversation,” he added. “In fact, I can be reached at my desk, 307-266-0516.”
You can read the report in its entirety here.