A coalition of journalism education groups is embarking on a noble project to bridge the divide between news organizations and conservatives.
Called A Road to Pluralism, the project is building on research by academics and 27 local newsrooms nationwide into conservatives’ concerns about bias and trust in media. That produced a list of suggestions for newsrooms.
The research echoes what I often hear from readers upset about what they see as liberal bias in local and national news coverage.
This is a perpetual and complicated puzzle to solve. Bias means different things to different people. The accusation is frequently used by some on the right and the left to delegitimize coverage that doesn’t conform to their partisan narrative.
News organizations are not perfect and there’s always room for improvement. But mainstream ones have standards to curtail bias, correct errors and do better next time. I suggest people judge them on a continuum.
Still, there are legitimate concerns. Any group that sees itself marginalized and stereotyped in news coverage needs to be heard.
It’s important for local news organizations to learn from such research and hear these concerns, especially as they become dependent on subscription revenue and community support.
Commitment shown already by the pluralism project and newsrooms involved should also send a message to Congress. Bipartisan bills needed to help save America’s independent, local news system need support from additional conservatives, especially in the Senate.
Researchers found that despite perceptions of bias, conservative and right-leaning audiences still place more trust in local news than in national sources.
The Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, working with the research and training group Trusting News, surveyed 3,467 Americans who consider themselves conservative or right-leaning. Local newsrooms interviewed 91 of them in depth.
Asked which national news outlets they trusted the most, 28.7% mentioned Fox News. Asked about distrusted national outlets, CNN was mentioned first by 43%.
Among local news options, 41.4% trusted a local TV station the most and 24.9% most trusted a local newspaper. Another 36.6% most distrusted a local paper, and 27.7% most distrusted a local station.
Overall, the subjects found local mainstream journalism more believable than national mainstream journalism.
The study also shows, once again, that conservatives are skeptical of “the media” in general.
That mirrors a journalism trust crisis documented by annual Gallup polls. They found overall “trust in mass media” has fallen from around 70% in the 1970s to 40% last year.
Among Republicans, trust is plunging further, particularly since the Trump era of politics began in 2016. It’s fallen to the point that last year, 58% said they had no trust at all in mass media.
The journalism research suggests several ways for newsrooms to better connect with their right-leaning audiences, which are similar to best practices for being more inclusive overall.
They include building relationships with people with conservative viewpoints and listening to them.
Journalists should also include a variety of voices from people with conservative views, and be cautious of using “conservative” or other terms to describe people who may have very different beliefs.
“There’s a lot of different kinds of conservatives, and they just lump them all together as the right-wing extremists,” said a polling subject in Iowa, identified as “Monica.”
Other suggestions: Newsrooms should consider diversity of political beliefs and backgrounds when hiring, and focus on story facts and not interpretation.
“It’s always good advice not to paint people with a broad brush — nobody wants to feel like they’re being pigeonholed with a group of people who might have similar beliefs to them, but not all their beliefs are the same,” study co-author Gina Masullo, associate director at the Center for Media Engagement, told me.
This comes as the remaining journalists are stretched thinner, with less time to report and build sources, more pressure to write authoritative stories and less space to include multiple voices in stories.
More research is also needed into why some people see bias in particular stories, distrust news sources such as The Associated Press and still embrace explicitly biased, partisan TV channels and websites.
Masullo said more research is forthcoming. For now, one of her big take-aways is “local news is certainly more trusted than national news, and that’s a positive for local news.”
That’s all the more reason to make sure local news outlets survive, and find ways to connect with everyone in their communities.