Joyce Terhaar

How much do you trust the media? Many say not much

FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2014, file photo, White House press secretary Josh Earnest takes questions during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington. Trust in the news media is being eroded by perceptions of inaccuracy and bias, fueled in part by Americans' skepticism about what they read on social media.
FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2014, file photo, White House press secretary Josh Earnest takes questions during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington. Trust in the news media is being eroded by perceptions of inaccuracy and bias, fueled in part by Americans' skepticism about what they read on social media. AP

Longtime Bee local editor Maury Macht, now retired, was famous for greeting reporters with the line, “What have you done for me lately?” Usually it was delivered a day or two after they published a deeply reported story. Always it was meant as a reminder of journalism’s brutal truth: Our readers want the latest news updates; we can’t rest on yesterday’s laurels.

So it seems fitting that in the wake of Bee editorial cartoonist Jack Ohman’s Pulitzer Prize win last Monday – the premier award in journalism – to roll up our shirtsleeves and work on the recent abysmal findings of the Media Insight Project that public trust in all media is almost as low as the trust in Congress.

That’s pretty bad. Specifically, only 6 percent of the public has a great deal of confidence in the media. Far more, 52 percent, have only some confidence, and 41 percent have none. For Congress? Four percent have a great deal of confidence and only 46 percent have some. I take no pleasure in media coming out ahead; no one would consider 6 percent a good place to be.

The Media Insight Project is an initiative of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago. The report published recently says trust in the media has declined over the past two decades. Yet Americans remain “frequent and avid consumers of news.” Eighty percent consume news at least once each day, and of those, 59 percent consume news several times each day.

It appears Americans want to be informed – a great and necessary instinct in a democracy. The question then becomes, what makes you trust a news source enough to return regularly to stay informed?

The Media Insight Project found that more than anything, Americans expect news organizations to be accurate. Eight-five percent of Americans say it is extremely or very important to simply get the facts right.

In today’s world of immediate information, the survey found that 76 percent of Americans say timeliness affects how much they trust a news report. It needs to be up to date.

Clarity, completeness, balance and transparency all continue to matter to news consumers. And many want to see people from their community reflected in the coverage.

80% Americans who consume news daily

What I found interesting is that political beliefs were not specifically cited as a factor in trust, though the survey found 23 percent of newspaper readers said it is very important that the paper share their views (with television it’s 37 percent).

Our region is politically polarized with a liberal urban core and conservative dominance in areas such as South Placer County. Reader complaints to me often have political overtones. One reader recently wrote that he considered Ohman’s work to be “absolutely outstanding” but so “liberal that his work loses a lot of credibility.” As an example he pointed to that day’s cartoon of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pouring gas on the election; the gas was labeled “violence.”

Cartoonists and late night comedians have covered Trump with glee during the campaign, it’s true. Yet Ohman’s cartoons recognized by the Pulitzer board offered biting political commentary about political behavior across the spectrum, including from Republican Ted Cruz and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. And of all his political cartoons last year, the one that generated the loudest response was a commentary on the Democratic race, with an outsized image of Clinton next to a tiny Sanders. A handful of Clinton supporters found the cartoon sexist.

I grew up in an era in which readers pointed to grammar, facts, story play in the printed newspaper or the framing of a story when they talked about credibility. Now that news is readily accessed with a mobile phone, trust in the media is also affected by the quality of digital delivery. Put another way: Is our technology good enough to be convenient to read?

The Media Insight Project found that Americans who accessed news online cited three quality issues they said damaged their trust in a news organization: advertising that interfered with news, slow load times for a news site or app, and content that doesn’t work well on a mobile device.

Not surprisingly, the younger the news consumer, the more such quality issues mattered. For weather and traffic information, it is imperative the news be easily accessed on mobile, the survey found.

23% Newspaper readers who say it’s very important that the paper share its views

It’s fair to say most traditional media are behind online behemoths like Google or Facebook in the speed or ease of use of digital sites, especially on mobile devices. We’ve made substantial improvement in the last year, though. And The McClatchy Co., which owns The Sacramento Bee, recently signed an agreement with Wipro, a global technology firm, to speed our rate of digital improvement.

So what else are we doing to win your trust? Accuracy is one of our core values and we correct mistakes as soon as possible. We continue to work to be transparent in our reporting, and I write this column to examine our work or decisions we make. We regularly reach out to people throughout the community in an attempt to reflect the breadth of the region.

We’ve reorganized our reporting staff to ensure we get even faster at breaking news including crime video, and we’re sending out more alerts and newsletters to let you know about news we’ve posted at sacbee.com.

And importantly, we continue to commit substantial resources to our data journalism and deep watchdog reporting, two areas that readers tell us they value. Reporting like our new campaign spending tracker, The Money Trail, is just one more way we’re working to earn your trust.

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