The Price Point | Why Viewers Trust Local Political Coverage
The number of polls showing loss of trust in political coverage by national news media has now become overwhelming. The trend began with Republican voters, but now includes Democrats and most everyone else. Pity the poor independents who not only distrust national media but have no cable channel to reinforce their views.
Although the numbers vary depending upon source, it is equally clear voters continue to trust local television news. The question, then, is why?
The key reason is that general managers, news directors, anchors and reporters all live in the communities they serve and therefore have direct accountability to viewers. This plays out in many areas, not the least of which is political coverage.
National media used to cover politics like sporting events and horse races. It is now more like a mud wrestling match, full of charges, counter-charges, paid experts and breathless anchors sometimes sharing personal beliefs as fact. When mistakes are made, everyone moves on. Viewers see this and wonder why there is no accountability.
Contrast this with local news, which is all about accountability. Voters who distrust national media, see something very different on their local stations. Members of Congress and other politicians, no matter affiliation, receive impartial treatment. When necessary, it is those same stations that hold politicians accountable for their actions. From state and county policies to mayoral debates, local stations also go far beyond headlines and soundbites to explain the issues.
One example of going above and beyond is Hearst Television’s announcement of Commitment 2020, a program in its 20th year that has won 10 RTDNA Edward R. Murrow awards as well as NABEF’s Service to America. It is a standard setting, multiplatform effort that extends across all platforms. In full disclosure, I ran two stations for Hearst, so I saw firsthand how many resources went into the program. I also saw ratings go up during political season. If you build it, they will come.
The most remarkable thing about Commitment 2020 is that it reflects the attitude of mainstream broadcasters throughout the country. In company after company, station after station, there is a commitment to serve communities by presenting accurate and fair coverage, not only on television but also in mobile, web and OTT services. To cite all by name would require a multipage addendum. It is a commitment that national organizations, well insulated from their viewers and readers, would find impossible to understand.
Most of the larger owners of local television stations also operate news bureaus in Washington, which benefit from the trust viewers already have in their local stations. This adds an additional local dimension not available in the national press.
Every local general manager and news director is well aware of their need to constantly build and maintain viewer trust. Trust is not optional. To lose it is to go out of business. At the end of the day if local television stations are the last news organizations left standing, viewer trust will be the reason why. Political coverage will be cited as a prime example.
This is one in a series of occasional columns from Hank Price, a media consultant, author and speaker. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a handbook for general managers. He spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis. He also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.