How Local Television Stations Can Reinforce Community Trust
“I don’t trust any of them. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are all crooks and are just in it for themselves.”
I heard this during a recent conversation with an individual who went on to explain why he despises all politicians but really likes his sitting governor and would vote for him again. While this struck me as contradictory, to say the least, it also gave me pause and got me thinking about the issue of trust when it comes to local broadcast news.
Our deeply divided nation no longer has a common frame of understanding when it comes to the daily news. The myriad news sources we have all come to rely on have splintered and even warped our sense of what is fact, what is indisputable and who we trust. The overlay of opinion and commentary so prevalent on cable news and social media has further confused the definition of “news” and created far too many pundits and so-called experts for our own good.
And swimming in the middle of this opinion ocean are local TV newsrooms attempting to inform their communities without fear or favor. For the most part, local television news does a respectable job of reporting without injecting personal opinion. There are exceptions, of course, but, for the most part, the individuals working in newsrooms across the country make every effort to give us just the facts and dig in — when they are given the time and resources — to help uncover corruption, expose wrongdoing and provide coverage that informs, protects and even celebrates the communities they inhabit.
Every recent study of trust and the media continues to point to a reliance on local TV news as the most trusted source of information for the majority of Americans, and while that is great for our industry, the numbers are declining slightly and show a fracture between how Republicans and Democrats view and trust their local news.
So, what to do? Here are a couple of suggestions:
Take a look at your newsroom: Do you truly represent the community you serve in terms of gender, race, geography, ethnicity and culture? Let’s face it, you could probably do better on this front. And this should apply equally in front of and behind the camera.
Are you actively carving a safe space for conflicting coverage opinions inside of your newsroom? Does your team feel safe enough to voice their diverging thoughts? This goes to my first point above and requires a diverse newsroom on multiple levels in order to implement. It could be that salient point that makes a difference in your coverage and resonates deeply with viewers.
Are your regular sources (think doctors, lawyers, community leaders, etc.) also reflective of the community you serve? Are you going to the same people over and over again because it is easier? If so, you are undoubtedly narrowing your coverage without intent and the impact, over time, can be myopic.
Are you giving your reporters and producers the time and resources to really investigate your community’s intractable problems and shine a bright light on the issues that directly impact the people you serve? I always think about Flint, Mich., and the lead-tainted water that went unreported for years and now I am thinking about Jackson, Miss., and their own water crisis, years in the making.
Show your work. Transparency and showing your work aren’t just for algebra. It helps the audience understand exactly how you obtained the information. Who knows, you may actually teach a member of your community how to attain those public records for themselves, which could improve the community while increasing trust in your own local outlet.
Finally, are you providing ongoing training to your reporters, producers and videographers so they are properly and safely prepared and supported when they hit the streets? Sadly, too many newsrooms have never put a regular program in place or do so only briefly following a tragedy only to abandon it a few months later. At Graham Media Group, we launched multiple in-house programs designed by and for our newsroom employees and found a way to fund them without breaking the bank. Your greatest resource for designing such efforts is working for you right now, so ask them what they need.
All of this leads to one indisputable fact: Trust is fundamental to seeing, hearing and believing what is delivered on our newscasts and websites. Trust is what brings viewers and scrollers to our stations and sites day after day and it is what keeps our businesses thriving. If we allow that bond to be frayed or broken, we will have lost everything.
Emily Barr is the former president and CEO of Graham Media Group. She retired earlier this year after holding management positions in television broadcasting for more than 30 years.