What local news outlets can do to overcome suspicion on the right

Photo (cc) 2008 by TimothyJ

Previously published at GBH News.

Recently I had a conversation with a hyperlocal news editor who wanted to talk through a dilemma. Her website, which covers such matters as town boards, schools, housing, public health and charity events, is resolutely nonpartisan. From the beginning, her goal has been to bring together people from varied backgrounds and with different political beliefs. Yet her sense was that most of her readers, like her, were liberal. What could she do to reach out to conservatives?

Her dilemma is not unique. Surveys show that people trust local and regional news more than they do the national media. Ideally, local news can help overcome the hyperpolarization that is tearing us apart at the national level and foster a spirit of community and cooperation.

Increasingly, though, the divisions that define national life are inescapable. Our school systems are rippling with rage over masks, vaccines and how kids are taught about racial justice. Discussions about policing have devolved into binary sloganeering about defunding the police or backing the blue.

And well-meaning journalists, mostly liberal but wanting to give a voice to everyone, wring their hands.

Last week, the research project Trusting News, a joint venture of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute, released a report on how local and regional news organizations can do a better job of connecting with conservative audiences. More than 3,400 self-identified conservatives responded to a survey, and 91 of them were interviewed by 27 media outlets around the country. (In New England, the participants were New Hampshire Public Radio, Vermont’s Burlington Free Press and The Day of New London, Connecticut.)

The report, written by Marley Duchovnay, a research associate at the University of Texas’ Center for Media Engagement, and Gina M. Masullo, associate director of the center, makes six recommendations. Three of them are of particular interest:

  • “Build relationships with people who have conservative and right-leaning viewpoints in your community and listen to them.”
  • “Include a variety of voices from people with conservative and right-leaning views in stories. Journalists should be cautious of using ‘conservative’ or other terms as catch-all labels for people who may have very different beliefs.”
  • “Consider diversity of political beliefs and backgrounds when hiring for the newsroom.”

The first two bullet points are just good journalism: get to know your community, and don’t assume everyone on the right drives “a pickup truck with the Confederate flag on the back,” as Masullo put it at a webinar held last week to explain the findings. The third, though, is potentially problematic. News organizations don’t ask job candidates about their political views, nor should they. So how do we go about ensuring ideological diversity in the newsroom?

“I think more the idea is to, in your recruitment strategy, try to hit rural areas, more conservative areas,” said Masullo. And yes, that seems fine in theory. But with the journalism economy continuing to shrink, hiring is not an everyday occurrence — and the need to hire people of color to diversify overwhelmingly white newsrooms has to be a top priority.

I was also struck by another finding in the report — that material from wire services in local media outlets contributes to perceptions of liberal bias more than the local content does. At the webinar, the presenters cited Mark Rosenberg of the Victoria Advocate in Texas, who told them: “National news drives distrust in the media far more than local news, it was surprising and frustrating to hear. 95% of what I do is local, but the syndicated copy and columns is what is driving distrust. That is something that recurred in all three interviews that I did.”

To invoke the old cliché, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. For daily newspapers like the Advocate, which have positioned themselves as a single source for community, national and international news, it’s difficult to imagine how that problem could be solved — especially when some of the respondents complained even about The Associated Press, known for its lack of bias.

Most weekly papers and hyperlocal websites, though, focus exclusively on their community, which means that they avoid offending conservatives who don’t want to see national and international news that has what they consider to be a liberal slant.

One approach that even the editors and publishers of daily papers could consider is thinking about how they can de-emphasize national news, including syndicated columns, in their opinion sections. Earlier this week my research partner, Ellen Clegg, interviewed Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University about a study he conducted along with two other scholars. The study attempted to show what happened when the Desert Sun of Palm Beach, California, dropped national opinion content for a month and went exclusively local. The result was a slight but measurable decline in polarization.

“The experiment is not without controversy,” Clegg writes. “The Trump-Biden presidential race and the COVID pandemic arguably showed how much local election laws, local public health policies and local governments matter in setting the course of the nation’s future. Abandoning coverage entirely — and opinion page columns do constitute a form of coverage all their own — could seem irresponsible to some.”

Still, for many daily newspaper editors, running syndicated material in the opinion section isn’t a way to serve readers so much as it is an aversion to new ways of doing things. More local opinion journalism, combined with some national content from the left and the right, would seem like a good mix.

A crucial concern that isn’t really addressed in the report but that did come up at the webinar is the importance of not pandering to people with right-wing views. Though the goal of broadening the conversation and bringing more voices into the tent is a laudable one, we can’t forget that it’s conservatives — radicals, really — who have gone off the rails, embracing lies about the outcome of the last election, the Jan. 6 insurrection, vaccinations, mask-wearing and such. Trusting News director Joy Mayer, though, told the participants that the very nature of the study tended to weed such people out.

“The people who self-selected into this research were not the people with the most extreme views and the most extreme distrust,” Mayer said. “If you are willing to spend an hour sitting and talking to a local journalist, you have to believe that they want to change. You have to believe they’re worth an investment of your time. The whole world is not made up of people who would be grateful for an hour to spend with a journalist.”

If journalists who run local news projects want to serve everyone in their community, and not just the more liberal elements, then the fundamental ideas outlined in the report are worth paying attention to: listen; be fair; don’t resort to cheap labels in describing those with different views.

I don’t know if it can help. But getting past the divisions that are ripping us apart is perhaps the most vital challenge facing us today. If there is to be solution, it’s got to start at the local level.

Fun with numbers, media trust edition

Earlier this week, I wrote for GBH News about a study showing little support for the core principles of journalism. Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab has done an exceptionally deep dive into the numbers and has concluded that they don’t say what the study’s authors claim.

Benton’s explanation is that the Media Insight Project took unambiguous support for certain journalistic verities and watered it down by pairing it with findings that showed a more dubious view of the press. Benton writes:

Its top-line finding — summarized by a [Washington] Post headline writer as “Bad news for journalists: The public doesn’t share our values” — is bogus. Or, at a minimum, unsupported by the methodology in use here. There is no reason to believe, based on this data, that Americans have somehow abandoned the basic values of democratic governance, or that we noble journalists are left to fight the lonely fight for accountability.

But Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, one of the organizations that sponsored the study, replies at the Columbia Journalism Review that Benton’s methodology is itself flawed:

Researchers caution against trying to draw conclusions from any one individual item without considering the full set.

We fear this is the mistake Josh has made.

My quick takeaway is that Benton gets the better of the dispute. But read both pieces and see what you think.