Talking TV: RTDNA’s Shelley On ‘Most Important Election Of Our Lifetime’ For Local TV News

RTDNA President-CEO Dan Shelley says TV news’ credibility is on the line in this election year as never before, and he has some advice on how stations can recapture viewers’ trust. A full transcript of the conversation is included.

RTDNA’s President and CEO Dan Shelley says there’s no question that this year’s presidential election will be the most important in a lifetime, and for local TV news, its credibility will be on trial.

Having surveyed 2,000 news consumers this past fall, RTDNA found trust eroding, particularly when it comes to political coverage. But Shelley says the survey also pointed the way to some pragmatic moves TV newsrooms can adopt to regain lost ground and build a hedge against persistent efforts to undermine their credibility.

In this Talking TV conversation, Shelley shares some of those tips and frames up the RTDNA’s legislative priorities for the coming year, along with weighing in on the FCC’s unpopular decision among broadcasters to reaffirm its ownership rules.

Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.

Michael Depp: By almost any account, the 2024 election will be a crucible for local U.S. TV news. How it handles coverage of local, state and national elections may, for once and all, cast its future in terms of viewers trust and newsrooms future viability in the market.

I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV, our weekly video podcast. Today, I’m with Dan Shelley, the president and CEO of RTDNA, to talk about the stakes of the election and the moves that TV newsrooms will need to make in the coming weeks and months to ensure that they will have legitimacy and a secure future with viewers. We’ll be right back with that conversation.


Welcome, Dan Shelley to Talking TV.

Dan Shelley: Happy New Year, Michael.

Happy New Year. Good to see you, Dan. There there’s really no point in pretending that this year’s election won’t be existential for some, if not all, news organizations is there?

I think it is, and you hear this every four years, right? The most important election of our lifetime. I think there’s a great case to be made that 2024 is indeed the most important presidential election of our lifetime, at least to date. And that is especially true for local news operations and the level of trust they either enjoy or don’t enjoy from the communities that they serve.

And we know that local TV news has been somewhat insulated from this massive trust problem that has afflicted national media, but that’s not really the case so much any longer. I mean, they’re feeling the tremors of distrust now, aren’t they?

They are. We worked with Magid late last year to release a comprehensive study on how to build and maintain trust if you’re a local television, radio or digital news operation with the public, as it relates to coverage of the 2024 election cycle specifically. There were a number of eye-opening findings, one of which is that of the 2,000 people we surveyed coast to coast, geographically diverse, racially diverse, generationally diverse, of the 2000 people that we surveyed, only 47% said they had a high level of trust in local news in general.

But when you asked about political coverage by local news organizations, that number dropped to 41%. So, well less than half of the people that we surveyed across the United States have a great deal of trust in local news ability to cover the 2024 election cycle.

That survey that you’re referring to, that was 2,000 people back in September. And it has held some ground with trust, though still, we should say, relative to national news. But I think 61, 62% of your respondents wanted to see tough, respectful questions of candidates and they want fact checking. But as you said, they’re also wary that TV news is less trustworthy when it comes to political coverage. So, how does a TV newsroom reconcile that?

Well, one of the great things about the study is that it actually allowed us to provide news managers and news reporters in local media five key ways, five things they can start doing immediately to either maintain, build on or rebuild trust with the public as it relates to election coverage.

Number one is cover community topics, not what the politician’s agendas are strictly. And we all know politicians, they have rote answers, and they will try to cram their agendas down your throat regardless of the question that you ask, but you have to somehow go beyond that and ask questions that voters really want to know the answers to.

The second, you mentioned, is fact checking. You have to have a robust fact checking operation in place in your newsroom so that you can make sure that you’re able to almost instantly, but it doesn’t have to be instantly, tell the audience whether a claim a politician has just made is factual or not. You have to show your work and your sources. In other words, you have to be transparent.

It’s not enough anymore just to report the news and expect the public will believe it. You not only have to show them the sausage, if you will, you have to show them how you made the sausage so that they can have access to the same sources and the same full interviews, raw interviews of political candidates so that they can double check your information to make sure what you’re saying is true, and they’re more educated in the process as voters.

You have to have a balanced accountability system in your newsroom. Voters told us clearly, they don’t want biased reporters. They don’t want reporters to wear their politics on their sleeves. They don’t want them to wear their politics on their social media accounts, and this is something that the industry has had to reconcile with younger generation journalists, particularly during and after the George Floyd incidents of nearly three years ago now. There were a lot of young journalists who thought it was OK to march in Black Lives Matter protests and the public.

You know, the issues surrounding George Floyd are clear. What happened to him was wrong, and people are in prison because of it, as well they should be, in my personal opinion. But were I a journalist on a local television station, should I wear Black Lives Matter clothing or fly that flag outside my home? What we learned in the study is no, keep your political leanings and philosophical beliefs to yourself.

And the final thing is substance over the horse race, right? You’ve got to cover the substantive issues of the campaign, not just focus solely on the horse race. And to that end, one of the other things we learned in this study is that people have a very low regard for political polls. They don’t trust the polls.

And yet, we see so many, so often on that front. Let me let me parse through some of the things you just brought up there. I mean, for one thing, fact checking and having a robust fact checking operation. I mean, that’s hard to do. It’s hard to staff that. It’s hard to cover the expense of that. You know, it takes a lot of quick reflexes, quick intellectual reflexes from people. You need people who are skilled in that area. Is that pragmatic for even, you know, small- or medium-sized market local newsrooms to handle?

It is, because most small- and medium-market television stations are part of larger companies that have in place on a corporate level, robust fact checking operations. I think of the Verify project at Tegna is just one example, but there are many other companies that provide those resources to their local market newsrooms. And I think you could fall back on that if you’re not in a large market and blessed with a lot of resources so that you could have a dedicated fact checking-only team.

You’re right, that’s not possible in a lot of markets across the country, but there are those corporate infrastructures in place that can help you with that.

And then I want to touch also on transparency you just brought up. Obviously, you know, it is kind of obvious that journalism is transparent if done well, you’ve got your sources clearly laid out, viewers or readers can go back and check with those sources, you know, put them in a broader context, doing their own research. And yet you find that many viewers will kind of refuse to see what they’re being presented with as anything other than biased, even when there is very clear transparency in the process.

How can newsrooms thread that needle when they have a kind of recalcitrant or at least a large subset of their viewership that is recalcitrant to being receptive to anything, even when there is transparency, as being legitimate?

Well, there’s a certain segment of the population, unfortunately, that isn’t going to believe you no matter what, because they’ve been indoctrinated by someone or some entity and they just believe what they believe. And to them, everything else is a lie. I like to believe—and I think the facts bear me out on this—that that is a relatively small percentage of the population.

The overwhelming majority of people, I believe, when shown not just the news stories, not just the facts, but shown the sources where we got those facts, how we obtained those facts, and they’re able to examine documents for themselves in addition to just watching a two-minute piece on the on the 11 o’clock news. They will have a greater deal of trust in the newsroom and the information that they’re receiving from that news entity.

George Packer had a very thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic recently, pondering what the landscape would be like for the media in a potential second Trump administration. He said that the worst fate would be irrelevance, discrediting the press and planting in consumer’s minds that the press is just another political actor. Do you share that concern?

Yes, very much so, because Donald Trump, during his first term in office, said — and I’m not implying that there necessarily would be a second term— but in his first term in office, he made it quite clear that all this rhetoric about fake news and journalists being enemy of the people. That was a calculated move on his part to try to eat at the credibility of news sources so that whenever a story appeared that was unflattering to him, a large segment of the population wouldn’t believe it because he was telling them it was fake news.

And I think we would see that on steroids in a second Trump administration. Now, obviously, the American people in their great wisdom will decide who the next president is. Is it Joe Biden? Is it Donald Trump? Is it someone else? I’m not opining on that, but what I am saying is we need to learn from what happened after 2016 and before 2021 and need to expect that to come back at us in a much more robust, better thought out, strategic way.

And yet at the same time, social media and news ecosystems are being flooded with disinformation, which is further muddying the water. What are you advising members to do with regards to intermediating themselves between disinformation and viewers? Is there anyone out there worth emulating in their practices on that front?

I would say there are a lot of companies that do local news across the country that devote resources and time to debunking misinformation and disinformation. But in the end, it really is up to the individual information consumer to determine what is true and what isn’t. Because you’re right, social media has become a cesspool of misinformation, disinformation, some of it really gnarly, if you will.

And journalists have a responsibility to try to debunk that mis- and disinformation, but voters and citizens have an obligation to do a little work on their own in that regard as well. If you see a story that seems too good to be true as a news consumer, you should check other sources to see if other sources are also reporting that. You should check.

There are things you should do as a news consumer, but as a journalist, one of the most solemn obligations you have in today’s society, in today’s ideological environment, is to debunk as much mis- and disinformation as you can.

And this dovetails into media literacy, and I feel like perhaps I harp on this a lot, in panels and such that we do. But I wonder, you know, in this year, particularly where we have so much disinformation circulating around and it’s such a such an array of media for people to consume, what your best practices advice is towards media literacy in this year and how it might be incorporated into content, more on air, etc.?

Well, journalists need to educate their viewers, readers and listeners about what mis- and disinformation are, and really how to check for it, how to fact check, if you will, what you see on social media, how to fact check what comes out of a politician’s mouth, what claims are made. And unfortunately, tribalism exists today in our society to such a great extent that there will be a percentage of the population that will believe disinformation and misinformation, irrespective of whatever facts are presented to them.

As I said before, though, I want to be optimistic on that point and say that I think that’s a relatively low percentage of people, but it’s still too many.

So, journalists have a responsibility to help people understand how to check for themselves. It goes back to our trust study on election coverage. People told us they want to see the story, they want to see the interview, but then they want to see journalists fact check claims made by politicians and they want to see the source material for the reporting that we do so that they can see for themselves what the truth or the best obtainable version of the truth is, to quote Carl Bernstein.

Safety is going to be an accelerating concern for reporters this year, and that’s prompting many groups to bolster their efforts to keep people safe. What is your advice for best practices on that front right now?

Well, if you go to [you can] see a lot of journalist safety resources that you should put into place in your newsrooms across the country. Obviously, as you know, Michael, a lot of newsrooms, a lot of companies are using armed security, other security, hardening of physical facilities like stations and things of that nature.

But it all comes down to this: Watch your back, but don’t back down. If you’re in the field, don’t be alone. Have a buddy system. Always make sure somebody knows where you are and what you’re doing and how to get to you quickly. You know, write on your arm or your hand, physically write on your arm or your hand your newsroom’s phone number or your news director’s cell phone number or your station attorney’s phone number. In the event and God forbid you’re arrested, you have that ready resource where you have a number that you know you can call to get help.

There are a number of tips that I urge people to look at in more detail on But the bottom line is watch your back, but don’t back down. And don’t be afraid to say no to an assignment, if you’re sent into an area and you don’t feel safe.

Now, I know this is a little bit out of your wheelhouse, but late last month, the FCC reaffirmed and even tightened its ownership rules for broadcasters. And it’s very possible that the lack of consolidation will have some serious knock-on effects for local news production. I just wonder, what are your own concerns, broadly speaking, there? Is there any message you want the FCC to hear on that front?

Well, as much as I want to believe that Chairwoman Rosenworcel and the other two commissioners who voted as they did late last month have local news at heart, take local news at heart and realize how critical and how important it is, and as much as I think in their minds, what they did was well-intentioned, I think there very well could be economic impacts on companies that operate local newsrooms across the country that actually will—I hope not, I hope this is not true—but actually could cause a constriction of local news coverage, particularly in smaller and medium-sized markets.

I think it’s very unfortunate, as a lot of other industry observers have said, and I think Harry Jessell said this in a TVNewsCheck column recently, this isn’t the 1960s, this is the 2020s. And the commission unfortunately issued a ruling that looks more like 1963 than 2023.

He did say that, indeed. Let me just ask you lastly, what are RTDNA’s priorities this year?

This year, our priorities are advocating on Capitol Hill, in statehouses and before city councils all across the country for a number of priorities. Number one, the Press Act, which has bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, that would effectively be a federal shield law protecting journalists from having to reveal the identities of confidential sources. That is a high priority for us.

Another battle that we’re fighting all over the country is against public safety radio encryption. That’s something that is hampering local journalists’ ability to cover emergency-related news incidents in many communities across the country, because there’s a wave of encryption going on right now in police departments.

But we’re fighting battles with the New York City Council over the NYPD, encrypting its police channels, scanner channels. We’re fighting in California. Legislation has been introduced to require police departments to keep most public safety radio transmissions public.

Now, the only exceptions would be personally identifiable information and medical information, and tactical information for situations such as where officer safety is legitimately involved. We don’t want officers to be hurt. We don’t want to expose the medical records of people unwittingly. We understand that. We believe that, and we believe that there’s room for reasonable compromise. Yet, all over the country, law enforcement agencies, big and small, are encrypting their radio channels just at the moment they should be seeking greater transparency and they’re going for more secrecy.

We’re also heavily involved in the effort in the Trump D.C. trial, the Jan. 6 trial, as it’s colloquially known, to try to get live broadcast coverage of that case. We’re part of a large coalition that filed an application with Judge Chutkan late in 2023, seeking live audio/visual coverage. NBC filed its own application, as you know, and so that’s a major priority for us. We’ll see what happens in the Georgia case. Our chances are not very good, frankly, in the Florida federal case. But we feel like the Jan. 6 case is so important that the people have to see for themselves what happens in that courtroom when that finally gets to trial or there won’t be any confidence in the outcome, whatever it is.

Right. Well, those are a lot of priorities and it’s going to be a very bumpy year ahead, Dan. I think we can both agree on that. So, let’s stay in touch on how your members are getting through it and your progress. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Absolutely. Thank you, Michael.

Thanks to all of you for watching and listening. You can catch past episodes of Talking TV, at, and on our YouTube channel, we have an audio version in most of the places you get your podcasts. And we’re back most Fridays with a new episode. See you for the next one. Thanks.

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