Can we talk?
Readers, do we understand each other?
As consumers of news and information, do you have a clear sense of the how and why of journalism and its role in a democracy?
I would like to believe a clear understanding does exist between journalists and our audiences. But according to a fascinating report released this week, that may be not be so. In fact, what we may have is “a failure to communicate” that contributes to a distressing distrust in the news media overall.
“We have a public that doesn’t fully understand how journalists work and journalism that doesn’t make itself understandable to much to the public,” states the Media Insight Project report, an initiative of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The report was based on twin surveys that asked parallel questions of journalists and the public about what they understand about each other.
Not surprisingly, a key finding points to agreement on a critical — and timeless — fact revealed in almost every media credibility study I have examined over the past 30 years: “Above all, the public says it wants accuracy.”
Indeed, that is aligned with what journalists see as job one, too. Large majorities of journalists and the public believe the news media should verify and get the facts right, be fair to all sides and be neutral in reporting.
While there was overall general agreement between journalists and the public in assessing the news they choose to consume as largely accurate, a large group of the public believes the news is too “opinionated” and the news appears to be commentary posing as news. Anyone who listens to readers concerns will not be surprised at that one either.
“The majority of the public thinks the press has veered too far toward opinion,” the report states.” This stands out as a major gap — and both a challenge and an opportunity for journalists.”
Interestingly, though, members of the public reported little difficulty distinguishing between news and opinion in their favourite news outlet. Clearly, familiarity breeds understanding.
The report also found an understanding gap within the public in the jargon of journalists — terms we use, largely without thinking about them, to describe our work and methods — terms such as “op-ed”, “attribution,” and the advertising term, “sponsored content.”
A third of readers do not know the difference between a news story and an editorial and a great many are confused about the use of unnamed sources. As I have explained these concepts often to Star readers — both in columns and in many one-on-one communications — I am hopeful that you, dear reader, know what I am talking about here.
Still, it is worth our taking strong note of the fact that “the public is confused by some basic concepts of news.” Clearly, my work here is not yet done.
Journalists had anticipated confusion from the public about what we do and how we do it. In many cases, journalists had lower expectations of the public’s news literacy than the results indicated. “Journalists are particularly skeptical that the public knows how they gather information for a story or about the editing process,” it states.
The report offered some positive facts about individuals’ trust in media: It was heartening to see that most people who had direct experience with a news story say it got key facts right; and most people who had interactions with news reporting mostly thought it was unbiased and fair.
And while overall trust in the media has declined over the past year, this study indicates people’s trust in their preferred news outlet has grown.
There is much else in this report worth considering on trust and misinformation — what is now popularly referred to as fake news, a label I abhor. As a remedy, the report prescribed large measures of transparency and efforts to increase “news fluency” from journalists and news organizations to build public understanding and enhance trust in journalism.
This is again encouraging to me in light of the Star’s ongoing trust initiative and the work of transparency reporter Kenyon Wallace to write stories that aim to bring our readers into the newsroom decision-making process.
The report’s takeaway message matters to the current debate about the role of serious journalism and how to fund it: As it concludes: “the public is ready for a relationship with more understanding and trust, if news media can take the right steps to earn it.”
Kathy English is the Star’s public editor and based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kathyenglish