May 21, 2021

Journalists — at least good ones — believe they work on behalf of the public. They’re the watchers on the wall; the chroniclers of the events over the next hill; the protectors of the public’s right to know.

It’s not surprising, then, that news people would think the public shares the values that guide that work.

Is it true? To what extent do journalists, who believe they work in the public’s name, know what the public wants from them?

That question has nagged for years. And rather than confront the answer, we in journalism dance around in an endless argument about “trust” in news. Critics on the left and right accuse the press of bias. Journalists shake their heads and say they are just doing their jobs.

To probe all this, my colleagues and I at the American Press Institute and our partners at The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research undertook a new way of thinking about trust in a study we released recently.

We took our cue from research on people’s moral values that has opened up a new understanding of how people react to political issues. That research, called Moral Foundations Theory, identifies five key moral values (loyalty, authority, care for others, fairness and purity) and pinpoints where people land on a scale of support for them.

Using that approach, we identified five core values of journalism, came up with two ways to think about them and then tested how much support people had for each one by asking how much support they had for the idea phrased two different ways, and an opposing idea as well. These five values aren’t the only ones that guide journalism, but they are fundamental to it. They are the ideas that:

  • People in power should be watched to keep them from abusing their power vs. that the press can get in the way of powerful people trying to do the right thing.
  • The more facts people have, the closer they will get to knowing the truth vs. that some truths go beyond just facts.
  • It’s important to offer a voice to the less powerful vs. you can’t solve all society’s inequalities.
  • Spotlighting what’s wrong in society is a good way to solve its problems vs. it’s more helpful to spotlight what’s working.
  • Society works better the more things are out in the open and transparent vs. transparency can be taken too far.

We surveyed 2,124 people and found that there was a good deal of circumspection about the values that guide journalists. About two-thirds of Americans, for instance, unreservedly agree with the idea that the more facts people have, the better. But only roughly half strongly support the notion — so cherished in newsrooms — of the press as a watchdog. People appreciate the watchdog role, but many also worry that it can also get in the way of leaders doing their job. Only about half also unreservedly support the idea that the less powerful in society should be given more voice.

Two other values had even less support. People had substantial reservations about the journalistic passion that things be out in the open — the vaunted value of “transparency.”

And they were even more skeptical that the best way to solve problems in society is to spotlight what’s wrong — with the press acting as a social critic. A lot of people think the best way to improve society is to highlight what’s working and celebrate what’s good.

We also learned that assuming that these different ideas about values were largely driven by political differences — which may be the most common framing of trust — may be a misperception, or at least a gross oversimplification. People’s attitudes towards the press had much more to do with their moral instincts than their politics. There are a lot of people across the political spectrum who could be more sympathetic to the press if they saw the press care more about some of the things they care about.

Some media coverage took the findings as more bad news for the press. Some even wondered if the press needed new values. I think the opposite. The findings offer fresh thinking about trust and point to new approaches journalists can take to win over skeptical audiences.

We did some testing of stories as part of the study to see if tweaking the way they were told made a difference. We changed the leads and headlines and added some framing to touch on more readers’ potential questions. We found that it was possible to tell the same story, with all the same facts, and significantly increase the interest of audiences in that story. For instance, a headline that said “New recreation center for low-income neighborhood a casualty of park scandal” was broadened to “Parks boss deceived mayor, misused taxpayer money.”

All the same information. Different headline, slightly different lead, more context. The changes made all audiences, including ones who liked the original framing, trust the story more.

What are the practical implications of all this for people in newsrooms? What should news consumers expect?

First, journalists should open the lens and become more inclusive when thinking about their audiences. That means writing less for themselves and more for the whole community, which will make their reporting more fulsome and complete.

Stop oversimplifying stories so much that people no longer see themselves and their ideas in them — or worse, feel they’re being unfairly represented.

It isn’t that hard to do. Years ago, the gifted writing coach Jacqui Banaszynski developed a tool for teaching young reporters how to make their stories more inclusive and accurate. It could help enormously. The tool goes by different names, but let’s call it the Stakeholder Wheel.

The basic idea is that when a reporter and editor are thinking about a story, they should first make a list of all the people who might be affected by the issues in the story — or who might have a stake in what it’s about.

Take something dry: If it’s a school bond story, the list of “stakeholders” might be students, parents, teachers, unions, administrators, taxpayers without school-age kids, people who use private schools. Suddenly that list is a lot longer than if the reporters started out by saying, “Who are the activists on the school bond issue who have issued press releases and are already speaking out?” The latter approach is reactive. The former approach is audience-centered and inclusive.

Almost any story will become more interesting, the picture more complete, if a journalist starts by asking who is affected by the story rather than who is already making noise about it. One other value of the stakeholder wheel: It moves reporters beyond their immediate biases (what they care about) and quickly to what audiences might care about.

The findings also support other important ideas in journalism. Amanda Ripley has written powerfully about how journalists oversimplify controversy so much that people stop seeing themselves in the work. Complicating the Narratives is the first piece. Now she has written a terrific book building on that.

The research also reinforces the need for more solutions in journalism rather than just spotlighting problems — just the kind of thing the Solutions Journalism Network has done so much smart work around.

Journalists also need to think harder about story choices. What some journalists denigrate as “puff pieces” — stories that celebrate things in society that are working — may be a lot more important to the public than they feel to a jaded newsroom. They also make the picture journalism paints more complete — and accurate. What programs in the city are working? What can we learn from a school that is getting better? Or a high school math teacher whose kids are getting into top schools?

The front page, the nightly newscast, or the homepage — these are not just collections of stories. They are a form of social cartography. And if they only tell part of the story of our world, they are a distortion, an incomplete map that isn’t all that useful for people — and it doesn’t ring true to them. It can feel biased.

Fact-based journalism is in trouble right now, especially locally. To survive, and help make local communities healthier, it has to reflect the lives of the people it is supposed to serve and answer their questions.

For that to happen, journalists need to avoid the mistake of confusing their good intentions about serving the public with actually doing so.

We all need to see ourselves and our concerns, our questions and answers that are helpful in the news. If we don’t, journalism really will become an alternate reality.

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One of the most recognized thinkers in the country on the future of news, Tom Rosenstiel (@tomrosenstiel) is the author of 10 books, including three…
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