One of the key goals of the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust is to come up with concrete ways to improve the trust and credibility gaps between news organizations and news consumers. We are working on strategies that we believe will help during this divisive time in our nation’s history.

Trust is such a big problem for media that there are several projects across the country looking into the issue and trying to find answers. Fake news accusations are exploding across the digital landscape, and partisan politics drives much of the public’s view of the fairness of news coverage, especially at the national level.

When you ask news consumers specific questions about what they see as unfair or biased reporting, their responses often revolve around political coverage, and their criticism generally comes from their partisan take on the coverage. But there also are critics who believe that many stories are overly hyped to generate clicks on digital platforms, and others who say important issues aren’t being covered at the expense of sensational stories.

But those factors are only part of the reason that many don’t look on news outlets as favorably as they did generations ago. Many critics see news organizations as arrogant and aloof. Newsroom leaders could help dispel those claims if they got back into the community and reconnected with groups and organizations to bring them closer to news consumers. We also recommend that reader forums be conducted on a regular basis.

Smaller staffs because of the disruption in the news industry have made it more difficult to send reporters and news leaders to make public appearances, or staff booths at community events. Marketing once was considered a valuable connection to the community, and allowed the public to see that those bringing you the news were part of the fabric of the places they covered.

Newsrooms are still involved in community events, but not to the extent of 10 years ago. The exception is television, which has always seen the importance of getting its news personalities into the community to MC events, and show the company flag throughout the community. But for other news organizations, “outreach” often is what is done on Facebook, Twitter and other digital platforms.

Journalists still produce high-quality public service projects, although not nearly as many as they did before the down-sizing of staffs. An interesting question that needs to be answered is whether the trust gap would be smaller if you took political coverage out of the mix. The vast majority of complaint calls that I took as a newspaper editor revolved around partisan issues.

From that perspective, you’d think that journalists only covered politics. But newsrooms also cover sports, features, the school board, city council meetings, crime, the weather, and other news of interest to readers, viewers and listeners. Seldom was there a complaint about those subjects, except when a factual error was pointed out.

Even in this era of anger at most major institutions, there is some good news in one survey of attitudes about the news media. While the national media still have a growing trust gap, a recent poll by the Poynter Institute shows that the public has a more favorable view of local news organizations.

Here are some key findings of the Poynter poll:

  • 76% of Americans trust local television news.
  • 73% trust local newspapers.
  • 59% trust national newspapers.
  • 55% trust national network news.
  • 47% trust online-only news outlets.

But even with this good news, local media still have a trust gap of about 25%. You can dig deeper into the Poynter survey results by going to this link.

These challenges are not a surprise to news executives. Many news organizations are publicly acknowledging the problem, and they are looking at ways to restore the trust of disaffected news consumers. We applaud those who are taking the issue on, and our Media Institute wants to help find answers.

The Fresno Bee has just announced an initiative to work on the issue by telling readers how and why news stories are created. Editor Joe Kieta explains the project in this column published online Aug. 24.

This effort has been in the planning stages since the first of the year. Kieta says The Bee is working with Arizona State University’s News Co/Lab, part of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, to create a transparency model. In addition, the newspaper conducted a reader survey with the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Bee is also going to work with local organizations, including the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust, to improve its engagement with the community it covers. It will also work with public libraries and other local organizations that “want to help improve the community’s information ecosystem,” Kieta said.

We like the idea that this project wants to bring the entire community into the conversation.

We at the Media Institute believe that the transparency project is a good first step in connecting better with the community. We also believe strongly in community engagement, and we have other ideas on how to better connect with news consumers.

Our Media Institute hopes to work with all local media, including television, radio and digital sites, on trust and increasing civic engagement. We have been working on some early strategies or “best practices” to help connect with readers, viewers and listeners.

In addition to being more transparent, news outlets should improve their customer service. It’s difficult to argue that you want to hear what your customers think when no one answers the phone or responds to emails. Saying you’re too busy, means you are not committed to engaging with your customers.

We also believe a news outlet should subscribe to an ethics policy or written set of professional standards, and those standards and a mission statement should be posted on the news site in a way that is easily accessible to news consumers.

There should be a clear policy on correcting errors. When errors are made, does the news outlet quickly correct the mistake and explain how the error was made?

Can news consumers connect directly with major decision-makers, such as the publisher, editor, columnists, station manager, news director, anchors, talk show hosts and major news personalities?

Is news separated from opinion, and is the type of content clearly labeled as news, opinion, analysis?

Are all political philosophies represented among columnists and others providing commentary to readers, viewers and listeners? The Poynter survey said that while trust has increased over last year, “Republicans continue to distrust the media at disproportionately high rates.”

What is the social media policy of the news outlet? Do reporters who produce objective news content then go on social media and give their opinion on their stories or sources?

As the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust gets established this academic year, we plan to bring you programs on these issues. You’ll hear from news leaders, news consumers, politicians, critics and others who will help sort out the challenges and offers solutions.

On Sept. 17, we will host a First Amendment forum that is open to the public. We are planning an ethics seminar later in September, and a future program will discuss media and agricultural industry tensions over farm and water coverage in our region.