To rebuild media trust might require working directly with news consumers

Since 1997, young adults ages 18 – 29 years have lost trust in the news media by 28 percent, while older adults ages 65 and older have lost trust in the media by only 6 percent, reports a 2018 Gallup poll. News and journalism organizations are crunching these numbers and are trying to figure out how to revive the trust within the next generation of news consumers.

This effort continues to face opposing views of distrust along with what some might say is the exacerbated, ongoing mantra of President Trump’s “Enemy of the People,” and an increased aggression grows toward journalists around the world. One organization is taking on the task to rebuild trust in the media by working directly with those who produce, read, listen and watch the news and execute changes now and in the future.

The idea for a “Journalist on Call” position had been in the works for a few years for the SPJ Foundation board of directors, said Alison Bethel McKenzie, executive director of the Society of Professional Journalists. The need to fully understand the news outlets and its news consumers in regard to the distrust of the media was at the forefront, she said.

Executive Director for SPJ, Alison Bethel McKenzie, has been helping to bring this project and position to reality. She hired an Associated Press editor from Philadelphia, Rod Hicks in July 2018. Hicks worked as an editor at the East Regional Desk at The Associated Press for nine years. When AP uprooted its Philadelphia office for a new central hub in New York City, Hicks said he decided to leave the AP.

“Because of the climate that we’re in, [the project] involves media literacy, teaching what it does and what is supposed to happen,” she said. “So that if something really big happens in the media … [Rod] is able to parachute in and work with the media and work with residents and build trust.”

The singular goal of the project, according to Bethel McKenzie, is to increase trust from the public toward the media. But for Hicks, he also wants to understand people’s attitudes. This new position would work directly with news outlets and its consumers to assess, analyze and implement possible solutions to improve the trust in these communities. Hicks in currently working in Wyoming.

“Well, I would like to understand why, and that’s really what I’m doing in this job,” he said. “I’m not trying to advocate for journalism, per se, at least not overtly. I’m really, honestly, trying to understand what people don’t like about the news.”

President Trump repeatedly calls the American media “Enemies of the People.” Wiki photo

A major change that has affected the media in the country, according to Hicks, is President Donald Trump’s attitude toward journalists and news outlets.

“I think that it is unfortunate that the President of the United States has labeled journalists the ‘Enemy of the American people,’” said Bethel McKenzie.

“I think it is a problem because I think that when you have people in power or of a certain stature, they have people who will listen to them or follow them, and the President of the United States is no exception. And of course he is a leader of our country and should be revered and listened to in some ways, but when you have the leader of the country claiming that a certain group of people are ‘enemies of the state’ then that just – that incites violence, it incites distrust and it puts a sword through the side of democracy which is what our country is built on.”

Distrust in the media is not due solely to Trump; the problem has been building for years, Hicks said. Trump has merely escalated the problem by sowing discord, he said.

“Understand this …  it is not new that people don’t fully trust the media. That is something that has been around ever since I’ve been in this business, but this is something that they came to on their own. They did not have the President of the United States telling them that you can’t trust the media and, and that’s – that’s a big change.”

Rod Hicks, Journalist On Call, Society of Professional Journalists

He said a lot of distrust arises because people aren’t sure what is “real”news and what it is not. With smartphones in hand and a constant stream of information, the “news” may be overwhelming to people, he said. Often, readers may determine some news may be untrue.

“If we help people, just news consumers, get a better understanding of what really is news and what’s not news, that’s a success,” he said. “… If we get news organizations to be more sensitive about what they are putting out there for the public to consume, and I’m not talking about things that the public really should know, but these borderline things or things that would not make a big difference if we didn’t run them, that would be a success.”

News sometimes was delayed because the physical newspaper had all the news and information for a story. Today, it is instantly on the internet. Flickr photo

When Hicks started working in journalism in 1985 at the Anniston Star in Alabama, the news people received was sometimes delayed, especially when reported in a physical newspaper. Unless breaking news was reported from a television station or on radio, most news consumers waited until their local paper was delivered to their home or a newspaper was available at a news stand. When big events happened, often, it would be the next day before the consumers would receive the news, he said. 

Because of this change from the past and news now quickly produced in a digital format, Hicks said it is more important for journalists to be aware of any mistakes in an article. Journalists are not trying to be malicious but rather they make mistakes because they are human, said Hicks. These mistakes, however, may be blown out of proportion, he said.

Hicks said his ultimate goals for the “Journalist On Call” position is to help people know how to identify legitimate news, help journalists eliminate mistakes from their work and help news organizations more carefully craft their content.

In the changing world of the media, Bethel McKenzie said it is important for journalists to remember their job is to report ethically and to remain objective.

“I think that all journalists should remember the importance of our [SPJ] Code of Ethics and especially the part of the code about remaining objective and not being on one political side or another and the part that talks about the need to embrace diversity or at least respect diversity in the context of what their reporting is,” Bethel McKenzie said.

“The media is the cornerstone of democracy,” she said. “It is one of the pillars on which our country is built. It is important people be able to trust the media. At least have respect for the media so they are able to accurately and adequately be informed of their rights.”

Because of distrust, attacks on journalists have increased, not only verbally, but physically, said Bethel McKenzie.The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 43 journalists were killed in 2018 including the assassination of Washington Post’s reporter, Jamal Kashoggi.

Jamal Kashoggi, Washington Post reporter was assassinated in Turkey in 2018. Flickr photo

These attacks and distrust might translate into problems with the First Amendment and the Freedom of the Press, which not only affects journalists, but the American people, said Bethel McKenzie.

“It [freedom of press] is synonymous with democracy,” she said. “And I would encourage everyday citizens to speak up for their right to have a free and independent press that is allowed to do its job without fear or threat or losing their jobs.”

“Martin Luther King Jr once said, ‘In the end … we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’ And I would implore all friends of journalists not to be silent,” Bethel McKenzie said.

Rod Hicks will be speaking about the stress when journalists work in an environment of distrust by the public at the “Trauma & Stress: while working in journalism” Conference on March 9, 2019, in Savannah, Georgia. For more information about Rod Hicks and the conference, go to https://traumastressjournalists.wordpress.com/

Sharon Dunten contributed to this report.

Hannah Lester is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 spring intern and reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com. She will be graduating from Auburn University this spring with a major in journalism. hannah.lester.spj@gmail.com