Written by Donald A. Promnitz
When Jim Boren, executive director for the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust and the former editor of The Fresno Bee, accepted an invitation to speak at an event in Napa, he received a glimpse at one of the biggest issues facing local news.
At the event, a conference for the Rural County Representatives of California – an advocacy group consisting of 36 member counties, Boren was asked to discuss how the news industry has changed in recent years, as well as how elected officials should handle and speak with the local press. After his presentation, he took questions and spoke to the officials there, who expressed to him their concerns with today’s news media.
These concerns included accusations of bias and partisanship in the press, as well as inaccurate reporting. Boren said concern might be compounded by the large representation of Republican voters in the Valley, referring to it as the “red part of blue California.”
In recent years, the news media have had an increasingly difficult time winning the trust of conservative readers and viewers. According to a Pew Research poll released this year, 68 percent of Americans – including 86 percent of Republicans – believe that the media is biased towards one side or party.
And while the most recent Poynter Media Trust Survey indicated that 76 percent of Americans have a “fair amount” or “great deal” of trust for local TV outlets and 73 percent for newspapers, Boren expressed his concerns that scrutiny of national news outlets could spill into the local sectors as both groups get “painted with that broader brush.”
“Cable news is so dominant and it’s always on,” Boren said. “And so I think that people’s view of the media is really reflected by their view of cable news, and it kind of trickles down.”
It’s a problem that Matt Sarr, editor for The Porterville Recorder, calls a “spillover effect,” especially when the inevitable mistakes are made by reporters.
“There is a general malaise that things are not well – that there’s a lot of controversial things going on in the country and people are concerned,” Sarr said. “And so when they see a mistake in the paper, they probably lump us in by association… and so they come up with a reaction that is excessively upset.”
David Taub, a reporter for online news outlet GV Wire, elaborated on this problem for all journalists, saying that waiting until all the facts are in is a critical step in avoiding errors as new information unfolds in the world of fast-paced information.
“I think it’s doing your due diligence,” Taub said. “It’s knowing that when you get a hot, juicy tip, or sometimes if it’s too good to be true, it just might be. You’ve got to realize who’s giving it to you and then you’ve got to vet it out.”
Taub and Sarr, however, agreed that one of the primary ways that local publications can maintain the trust of the public is by focusing on the issues within their respective communities. While national issues may be divisive and partisan, Sarr said that in general, the public counts on and trusts local reporters with the issues that are closer to home.
“Your readership trusts you for being a reliable outlet – that you are going to deliver stuff that matters to them,” Sarr said. “In a day and age where our journalistic credibility is being called into questions like: ‘Where do your loyalties really lie?’ the best answer to that question, I think, is to demonstrate, through your content, that my loyalties lie with you.”
Boren further cautioned that regardless of a reporter’s objectivity and efforts at fairness, there would always be those that openly criticize their local publications for perceived bias. To emphasize this, he relayed that when he was reporting on politics at The Bee, he would get complaints from Republicans and Democrats alike, claiming partisanship for the same article. He added those 24 percent of people in the Poynter Poll who don’t trust their local press are often the ones most active in political matters.
Taub, meanwhile, added that while it may be uncomfortable, reporters should never hesitate to second guess themselves and regardless of reactions, pursue the facts of any story.
“And the best thing that I can do as a journalist – the best that GV Wire can do as an organization – is tell it like it is,” Taub said. “To be fair and present the facts in an evenhanded manner and let the readers decide.”