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Trust in news media isn’t a lost cause.

Studies from the Media Insight Project, Gallup, Trusting News and others show that audiences put their trust in the news depending on certain factors that are present within the organization. In order to uncover where news outlets are on target or lacking in these factors, I conducted research with news sites across the country.

For this study, I reviewed 70+ randomly selected outlets in Missouri, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Washington. I started with Missouri and Georgia because of their connections with the Trusting News project, and expanded to Pennsylvania and Washington to get a broader view of news sites across the US. To make the selections random, I took a list of outlets from each state off Wikipedia and numbered the sites. I numbered daily papers, weekly papers, TV stations, and hyperlocal stations separately. After, I put the numbers into a random number generator until I had the desired number of outlets from each state.

I considered different levels of news outlets to have a broader understanding of an area’s news content. Within the sites, I looked for factors such as accuracy statements, contact information, ownership, and funding to see how accessible the information was. I combined my observations with studies conducted by other organizations, such as this one from the Trusting News project, to figure out what news organizations can do better to gain the public’s trust again.

Accuracy

Accuracy is the most important factor for 85 percent of adults when determining whether a news source is trustworthy, according to Media Insight Project study. According to Gallup, 71 percent of adults say that transparency and fact-checking are extremely important factors in trusting a news site.

Knowing this information, I searched heavily for accuracy statements. I would search under the “About Us” tab or scroll through paragraphs of legal jargon in their “Terms of Use” or “Privacy Policy” tabs, hoping to find something about accuracy and how it was ensured. Only 1 of 63 news websites that I explored had an accuracy statement that was easy to find and understand. Even then, that statement included more ethical principles of the paper than their steps taken to ensure accuracy. If accuracy is very important to most of the public, then why don’t more news organizations take time to make sure that their audience knows that their information is verified?

Ownership

Ownership and funding of the news also heavily contribute to what makes people trust the information that the news outlets produce.

If many newspapers are owned by one company, that can create a perception among readers and viewers that the website, TV station or newspaper could have a subtle or explicit bias. Or, if an untrustworthy company owns a news outlet, that news outlet is automatically viewed with a cautious eye.

According to The Knight Foundation, when asked to describe in their own words why they don’t trust the media, many Americans’ answers included matters of bias. No sites out of all the news organizations I looked at had any accessible and meaningful information about ownership and funding.  But, with a little digging, you can find some interesting tidbits of information. For example, in Missouri and Georgia, 35 percent of the newspapers I looked at are owned by the same company. Most sites only mentioned ownership with their company name at the bottom of the site, or not at all.

Contacts

Since knowing who’s behind the news is so important to people, I figured that contact information for the papers and individual editors, producer, reporters and other working journalists  at the news outlets would be readily available. The good news: Only five sites had no contact information available, and all five were small, infrequent sources of news. However, even though contact information was readily available, it wasn’t as thorough as I was expecting. Of the 63 sites I looked at, 29 had only basic contact information — either just their company’s fax, address, or main phone number. Some had full contact information for each individual employee, and even fewer had pictures of their employees for reference. Results from the Media Insight Project said that visuals are a key factor to aid individuals in trusting the news, so pictures accompanying employee descriptions help to put a face to the news.

Some other observations

  • Mostly all sites had some sort of mission statement or history of the news outlet, which gives the company a more trusting feel.
  • Weekly papers, TV stations, and hyperlocal stations had much less information about the company itself compared to daily papers, but usually had more personal contact information.
  • Only weekly papers had reliable places to suggest feedback for the news outlet.

Taylor Gion is a Discovery Fellow and student at the Missouri School of Journalism. She’s from Des Moines, Iowa.



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