It is no secret that trust in the media has declined, especially over the last decade.
In 2016, Gallup announced a record low 32% of Americans have confidence in the media, and in the last six years, that number has increased by just 2%. Studies like these tend to overlook, though, the connection between race and trust in the news — or rather, lack of trust — and how long this sense of mistrust has persisted.
Newsrooms have historically perpetuated ignorant and inaccurate coverage of communities of color, whether it’s The New York Times calling fruits popular in Asian culture “bland” and “repulsive” or media outlets pushing stereotyped narratives of Black families as socially unstable, as found in a study published by Color of Change and Family Story. With such distorted coverage, it is no surprise that these communities would not only have little confidence in journalists but also be unwilling to speak to them in the first place.
“Journalism and the way that it exists now, and newsrooms and the way they exist, just won’t exist in the future if they don’t transform their relationships with communities of color,” said Alicia Bell, the director of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, which gives grants to journalism organizations led by people of color.
Because of this, journalists and newsrooms, especially those that are mainstream or legacy organizations, must actively work to build trust with these communities to evaluate holes in their reporting, produce more informed coverage and ultimately better serve local audiences.
“Folks deserve accurate news and information, and also accurate portrayals of our communities, stories and experiences. And that doesn’t happen without trust,” said Bell, who previously worked for the media reform nonprofit Free Press and focused on this topic. “And oftentimes, this harmful cycle happens where because folks don’t trust their newsrooms, they’re more reluctant to share. Then the news and storytelling ends up being less than accurate.”
Especially with Hispanic communities facing disproportionate impacts of gun violence, the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, and high rates of deaths among Black people at the hands of police, communities of color may find it hard to trust journalists who don’t have shared experience.
Representation in newsrooms, thus, is an integral part of building trust.
Despite calls for more diversity in journalism going back to the Kerner Commission in 1967, the news industry remains predominantly white, from decision-makers to beat reporters. An article published by the Columbia Journalism Review showed that the percentage of people of color in media from 2005 to 2017 remained relatively stagnant at around 20% across television, newspapers, radio and online news.
“People often don’t feel like news is made for or by people like them,” said Joy Mayer, founder and director of Trusting News, an organization that teaches journalists strategies for gaining trust. “Newsrooms have been pledging to work on being less white for as long as I’ve been in journalism, which is a very long time, and the progress is slow.”
Recently, there has been a push for more diversity and inclusive approaches in newsrooms across the nation, according to a 2021 survey by Northwestern University. But Adrienne Johnson Martin, executive editor at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit news organization in Memphis, said she has only seen a “cosmetic” change in newsrooms.
“You probably see more stories about Black life in particular ways that you didn’t see before. You probably see more stories about Asian life that you didn’t see before,” she said. “But if it’s not structural change, it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t change the perspective. That doesn’t change the relationship. That doesn’t change the content in a meaningful way that shows an understanding of people.”
In general, news organizations have propelled negative stereotypes about communities of color by focusing on the problems within these communities. A 2020 report from the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas studied Black Americans’ distrust in the news, surveying 1,052 Black Americans, and found that they believe journalists’ coverage of their issues to be incomplete and skewed negatively.
“Even if individual stories are accurate, the picture being painted about their lives and their communities are focused on specific problems,” Mayer said, aligning with the report’s findings.
The report also found there was a “stark disconnect” between expectations and reality of the coverage, as many participants felt disappointed in the media’s efforts to cover their communities. On a scale of one to seven, the report showed respondents’ expectations for coverage scored a 5.5, but whether the actual coverage met their expectations scored much lower at a 3.3.
From Bell’s experience in analyzing the intersection between race and journalism, she noticed that the disappointment created by the dichotomy of expectations and reality has created a different form of trust in the media — that is, communities of color trusting that the media will continue these patterns of bias.
“If you show yourself to be harmful or perpetuating stereotypes, folks will trust you to do that. And it’s not a positive trust; it’s a negative trust,” she said. “It’s like, ‘I trust you to be harmful until you show me otherwise.’”
Journalism can feel extractive in its relationship with sources, according to Free Press. Instead of genuinely listening to sources and responding to their issues, reporters can create more harm by using sources’ trauma to get sound bites and quotes. Derrick Cain, the director of community engagement at Resolve Philly, aims to mitigate this issue by creating more of a relationship with community members. Resolve Philly is a small collaborative organization in Philadelphia that has developed initiatives and resources to help media outlets improve their coverage.
“Historically, there’s been this huge gap of mistrust with communities, especially communities of color and journalists, for one, because most of the time they parachute in, get their quotes and go on,” Cain said. “They don’t follow up, and sometimes they just get it wrong as far as the actual reporting. So there’s been some traditional mistrust and stereotypes that’s been playing out for years.”
Organizations like Resolve Philly, MLK50 and Trusting News are navigating relationships between journalists and local communities and are working to develop trust in various ways. All of them, though, begin with two skills: looking inward and listening.
The power of listening
Sue Robinson, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who wrote a report in 2016 on how to better cover communities as a white journalist, starts every class with identity training.
She said that it wasn’t until she started her first book, “Networked News, Racial Divides,” about racial inequality and how it affects public discourse, that she realized “how white I was” — as a person, a reporter and a teacher. After having this racial reckoning of her own, she realized the importance of understanding ourselves and our biases and advises every journalist to do this internal work for better, more accurate reporting.
“Journalists have to undertake their own racial journey,” Robinson said. “They need to do the work themselves for them to truly understand, or at least begin to understand, the perspectives of what some of these groups have gone through as being part of the United States. Until they do that work themselves and appreciate their own role, it (their reporting) is not going to be effective — it’s just checking a box.”
MLK50’s Johnson Martin adds that while journalists may not identify with the communities they cover, they should not focus on how they are different. Instead, she wants journalists simply to approach them with a sense of compassion, without any presumptions.
“There isn’t a community that you shouldn’t have a connection with as journalists. Because every community is just a community of humans,” Johnson Martin said. “I think what happens, though, is we walk in with assumptions, biases, ideas, and that’s where the disconnect is. … That’s the work you do individually — understanding that at the core of this is recognizing people’s humanity.”
To improve listening skills, Mayer and Trusting News have hosted a Trust 101 online course since 2019, educating journalists on the nature of media trust and how it differs depending on the demographic group. In 2021 and 2022, the class was focused specifically on trust with communities of color.
Those who participate start the first week by asking members of communities of color to share their experiences with the media. Last year’s class posted their results in a Twitter thread, which featured responses about diversity, power dynamics and assumptions of certain identities.
“I want journalists to understand that it’s reasonable for people not to trust them, for people to have had experiences in their lives that lead to distrust of journalists. That is reasonable and rational,” Mayer said. “And if it’s going to change, journalism needs to change, not the people.”
For Cain and his team at Resolve Philly, the main role is to listen to their audiences about what is happening in these communities. After establishing these connections — and trust — they act as liaisons, connecting community members with journalists at partner news organizations in the Philadelphia area to assist them in creating better relationships.
“Most of the time, when you’re going out in a community, it’s not going to always produce a story. You’re just going to understand and learn about the community,” Cain said. “By doing that it’s actually helping you in your journalism position because that person’s going to trust you or they’re going to send you to someone else. … They’re going to reach out to you more if they feel there’s a trust — there’s a relationship there.”
Cain says his favorite question to start these community conversations is: What do you love about your neighborhood?
“Sometimes people are taken aback because they’re like, ‘Wow, no one comes to my community and asks me what I love about it. They usually come and ask to talk about murders or violence. It’s never about what I love about my community,’” he said. “So that in itself starts off a great conversation.”
Mayer also acknowledges that journalists have to approach communities of color with a “learner’s mindset.” Reporters need to recognize their own backgrounds and identities, and that there are cultural differences and nuances that they may not know about. These things not only inform the content of their piece but also their process when reporting.
“The first step is understanding what you don’t know and showing some humility,” she said. “Journalists are trained to learn about things they don’t know about. They’re not trained enough to think about how that affects their style and approach as a reporter when it comes to cultural issues.”
The power of being present
Beyond self-awareness and a willingness to learn, Babz Rawls Ivy, editor-in-chief of Black-owned newspaper Inner-City News focusing on the Greater New Haven area, said that the most important part of community engagement is being present.
“I’m in community. They know me, and they trust us because I’m in community, because I go to their events,” Rawls Ivy said. “And not so much that I’m Black. … You can be Black and not in community.”
Rawls Ivy credits Inner-City News’ connection with its audience to the practice of showing up for all types of events, highlighting positive local stories and providing tough coverage when warranted.
She recommends that larger mainstream newsrooms do the same.
“Don’t show up just for the tragedy. Don’t show up just for the shootings and the trauma. Show up for the celebratory things. Show up to the high school football and basketball games. Show up to the cookouts. Show up to the community event that’s going on,” Rawls Ivy said. “If you are sincere about fostering better relationships, get to know the people who you are writing about. So much more of their lives is not just about trauma and the tragedy that happens in these neighborhoods.”
The power of transparency
Another major facet of trust involves transparency. When reporting and getting sources, Mayer said that journalists tend to rely on their news organization’s reputation to demonstrate credibility, and they assume that the public trusts them.
But this presumption is not always the case.
“Journalists have a way of feeling like the value they offer should be obvious, their integrity should be obvious, their goals should be obvious. And they’re just not,” she said. “A lot of people have a lot of very valid reasons for not trusting the news.”
Organizations such as Resolve Philly and MLK50 are actively pushing for practices that explicitly lay out what the journalism process entails, since the average citizen has likely not encountered the media. Resolve Philly even developed and published an online guide, the “Interview Transparency Process Factsheet,” to help journalists in the field when working on a story. These tips include talking about any concerns and explaining the reporting process to sources before the interview starts.
“Just take an extra five minutes to break down: ‘What does this journey look like?’ Because I can say probably 90% of the people out here have never engaged with a journalist, and they don’t know how that works,” Cain said. “Little tools like that that we use and talk about helps break down some of the barriers of mistrust in the community.”
MLK50, taking the opposite tack, published a resource for the members of the community called “Don’t Talk to a Journalist Until You Read This,” written by Lewis Raven Wallace. The resource aims to shift the power dynamic of the reporting process, not placing it all in the hands of the journalist. Raven Wallace also wrote the book, “The View from Somewhere,” which denounces the idea of objectivity as “both sides” balance by highlighting its impact on marginalized groups.
“I think it’s really important for people to understand the media, the impact,” Johnson Martin said, “and understand how they can have a sense of control about how they give their information, what information they should get, and what the relationship they are to people who are storytellers and news gatherers. That’s part of trust.”
The power of auditing
Outside of community engagement, an important part of building trust is acknowledging the history and practices of each newsroom. This is done through audits, which should look at three aspects: content, sources and harm.
“One good strategy is actually investing in auditing your own content and saying, ‘If I were a member of this community, would I see my life reflected?’” Mayer said.
Content and source auditing involves analyzing past coverage to see which communities are being consistently covered and the diversity (or lack thereof) of people who are used as sources. Newsrooms can identify the demographics of their sources, such as race, gender and age, and see how it compares to the demographics of the area. This information will help in creating action plans for how to improve.
Bell also suggests that newsrooms regularly perform “harm audits” to track ways they have disrespected communities of color or perpetuated stereotypes in their coverage.
Bell said that these audits allow newsrooms to ask questions like: “What harm have we committed to communities?” “What harm are we currently doing?” “What feels harmful to people, even if we don’t understand it to be harmful?”
Bell emphasized that these audits also should focus on internal newsroom environments.
“If you’re not treating journalists of color well and you’re not paying folks equitably and not building a culture where folks actually want to stay and feel like they can thrive,” she said, “then you’re never going to get to a place where you have full trust from communities of color, because those people are communities of color.”
Johnson Martin adds that reevaluating the treatment of newsroom employees is part of a structural change that needs to happen, along with diversifying newsroom ranks, rethinking how we understand news, recognizing power dynamics and understanding audiences.
For this shift to happen, she also emphasizes the importance of making newsrooms more community-driven, focusing on partnership.
“We literally can’t do the work we do without the rest of the community. They aren’t ‘sources’ that we pull into the process of our storytelling. They are partners in telling their stories, and we can’t tell the story without them,” Johnson Martin said. “That’s the shift that I think legacy journalism has to make — to let go of this sense of ownership and control of the work.”
Cain added: “To be honest, I would like to see Resolve close. Because that means newsrooms are doing what we work with them to do. I think the ultimate goal is to look at newsrooms, especially the legacy ones, and get them to understand that community engagement should be throughout the process, not an afterthought.”