Updated on Sept. 25, 2018

I have been looking for opportunities to extend the reach of our Media Institute, so I quickly accepted the invitation to speak to a group of California rural elected officials at their annual meeting last week in Napa.

The Rural County Representatives of California wanted to know how the news business has changed over the years, and how they should be dealing with local media on routine issues, as well as high-profile news stories. There are 36 counties in the RCRC, which was organized to help its members maneuver through legislative and policy issues in Sacramento, and Washington, D.C.

The RCRC conference had presentations on a variety of topics, including how to ensure a complete count in the 2020 Census, the impact of the global trade war on rural communities, cybersecurity and how the November election is shaping up. This is a very engaged organization.

The annual meeting was the perfect opportunity for the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust to conduct direct interviews with news consumers outside the San Joaquin Valley. I was anxious to meet with this group because most of the attendees would be politically conservative, and I wanted their take on media fairness. In politically “blue” California, rural counties tend to be the “red” regions of the Golden State.

My session, “The Changing Face of Media,” was split into a formal presentation by me with PowerPoint slides, a presentation by award-winning journalist Judy Farah, and then questions from the audience of about 200. The question period could have gone on for hours, even though this was the last session of the day and we were the only ones separating conference attendees from the evening reception that featured a taco bar, crab cake sliders and some very nice Napa Valley wines.

img_0087-e1537739741639.jpgWhile the criticism of today’s media was offered politely, the general view of the group was news coverage was definitely negative and unfair, with many saying national news outlets are too liberal, too cynical, too aloof.

The examples they gave of biased news coverage broke along political lines. The Brett Kavanaugh sexual misconduct allegations and ongoing coverage of President Trump have been unfair, they said. One participant declared that the Kavanaugh allegations are so outlandish that they shouldn’t even be covered by the media.

This reflects the strong partisan divide that Republicans and Democrats have in viewing news media fairness. The Pew Research Center just released a poll that says 68% of Americans believe the news media plays favorites on partisan and social issues. Breaking it down, the Pew study reveals that 86% of Republicans  — more than 8 in 10 — believe the media is not even-handed on partisan and social issues. Pew said 52% of Democrats says news outlets favor one side.

In the meeting with rural county officials, local media got better marks than national media. But some elected officials said they have ongoing issues with coverage of their communities.

This national/local split follows the results of a Poynter Institute poll that says local media outlets are more trusted than national news outlets. Still, about 25% of Americans polled don’t trust local news. This trust gap is troubling and one of the reasons that we have created the Institute for Media and Public Trust at Fresno State.

Keep in mind, that those attending the rural counties meeting last week are not regular news consumers, but elected officials who routinely interact with the journalists who cover them. There always will be tension between reporters and the people they cover over many issues, such as access to public records and giving the public information that elected officials don’t want released.

But their complaints about coverage went deeper in my interviews. They’d like to see journalists covering them in person, they said, and that local reporters spend too much time gathering information by email. If reporters talked to newsmakers face to face, they said they could build relationships and trust would improve on both sides of the reporter/news source equation.

But with smaller news staffs and technological advances, the trend of government meetings being covered remotely likely will continue. It’s cheaper and faster to cover routine meetings via the Internet. Wall-to-wall coverage of local government is one of the casualties of the business pressures on media.

I later followed up with some of the participants in the rural counties meeting. Roger Gitlin, a member of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, said in an email that he gets most of his national news from cable television, primarily Fox News.

“I do not believe national media treat issues in a fair and balanced manner,” he said. “Prejudice is blatant. Sadly, I harbor a great mistrust for both electronic and print mainstream news media.”

Gitlin thinks the national media look for ways to find fault with President Trump. He also says reporters want to be part of the story and inject themselves into the news coverage instead of remaining objective observers.

I asked him if his view of media would be different if you took the coverage of politics out of the equation. Not possible, said Gitlin. “Politics is like a virus. It’s everywhere and it’s pervasive.”

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor John Peschong said the quality of news coverage depends on the news outlet. Some do a good job, he said. But he was critical of local media pulling back on direct coverage of events and relying on technology.

He said it is rare when the local newspaper has a reporter in the board chambers. They prefer to watch the meeting in their office while it is streamed on the Internet, he said. “They don’t get a feel for what is happening when you are not there. Their stories are not as rich in detail or as in-depth.”

Stacy Corless, a Mono County supervisor, moderated the media panel, and she brings a more centrist view to the news discussion. Her sources for national news include National Public Radio, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Politico and the New Yorker. She believes political issues for the most part are covered fairly, but acknowledges that she reads news sources that reinforce her opinions.

But Corless also is critical of local coverage. The local papers don’t have the staffing, and in one case, she says the publisher’s point of view gets in the way of fair and accurate reporting on Mono County issues.

She thinks local media could rebuild trust and confidence in their product by going back to the basics: Hire copy editors and a strong team of writers and editors. She says that problem won’t happen in an era of shrinking newsrooms, but such a move would give readers more confidence in the news they are consuming.

Corless said in a crisis, however, the local media seem to step up to the challenge.

“When it comes down to really needing information — when there’s a wildfire or other natural disaster impacting communities — our local and regional media sources come through,” she said.