Comment: Will people trust media when values aren’t shared?

A poll showing how the public views journalistic standards may call for a change in how news is presented.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

Ask almost any group of journalists to name the core values of their profession, and they’ll probably deliver a list like this:

Oversight. We’re the watchdogs keeping an eye on government officials and other powerful people and institutions.

Transparency. We believe it’s best to put information out in the open, not keep it hidden.

Factuality. It’s crucial to provide as much accurate information as possible to get to the truth.

Spotlighting wrongdoing. We think society’s problems are best solved by exposing them to public criticism.

Giving a voice to the voiceless. It’s our job to advocate for those lacking power or social standing.

These ideas are so ingrained that we have adopted certain aphorisms to express them. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” we might observe. “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” we counsel each other.

“Journalism is a tribe,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. “These are our core values, and we think that everybody shares them.”

But, according to some major new research released today, these values can be a turnoff for the general public. And it suggests that journalists who want to reach the broadest audience and have the greatest impact should consider changing how they think about and present their work.

The study, “A New Way of Looking at Trust in Media,” is from the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between API and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It builds on research led by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt into the importance of moral values — such as fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity — in people’s lives.

Researchers asked participants how much they support the values I mentioned above — transparency, factuality, etc. — but kept it in the abstract, without specifying a focus on journalism.

The results indicated that only one of five core values touted by journalists also shares the support of a majority of Americans; the idea that more facts get us closer to the truth. About 7 people in 10 support this.

The value drawing the least support is the idea that a good way to make society better is to spotlight its problems. Only about 3 in 10 agree.

And only about 1 in 10 Americans fully support all five of the journalism values that were tested.

Support for these values does not break cleanly along party, demographic or ideological lines but rather seems to be driven by “moral instincts.”

People who most prize loyalty and authority are much less likely than others to see the need for a “watchdog” over the powerful; while people who put a high value on fairness are more likely to think society should amplify the voices of those lacking power.

I must confess that my first impulse was to resist these findings. After all, I’ve spent decades with the ideas described above as my lodestar, convinced that journalism serves the public good. And after all, investigative journalism is built on the idea of being society’s watchdog.

However, given that trust in the news media has fallen from about 70 percent in the early 1970s to about 40 percent now, according to Gallup; it seems worth viewing this report with an open mind.

“This at least opens a new window,” Rosenstiel told me. “It gets us out of the endless loop.”

Too often, the discussion about media trust is a Mobius strip with “the feel of people talking past each other,” as the report aptly sums it up. Journalists hotly deny that they slant the news to help one political party vs. another, while critics on the right scoff at them, and some on the left question the entire point of objectivity: Why not just have journalists declare their biases up front and proceed from there?

Over and over again, we try to explain to a distrustful public that, “we’re not biased, we’re just doing our jobs,” Rosenstiel said.

The report divides respondents into four groups, according to their various moral principles: Upholders, Loyalists, Moralists and Journalism Supporters. Alas, that last group is the smallest of the four. But we have a chance of making inroads with some of the others.

Upholders, for example, put a high value on respect for leaders and groups. “They worry that some of the things journalists believe in can be intrusive and get in the way of officials doing their jobs,” the report notes. They would like to see more stories about what works, not just what is going wrong. In general, there is an appetite for more solutions-oriented journalism.

The report’s authors, in a follow-up study, tested different ways of presenting the same story. For example, one about pollution whose “standard” headline would have been: “At-risk neighborhood now facing health threat from toxic drinking water.”

A revised version was found to have broader appeal for many readers because it emphasizes the role of a trusted authority, in this case, the military: “Local community at risk after state officials ignore military study.”

Rosenstiel observed that journalists, ever eager to get the most clicks on stories, have become skilled at using “A/B testing” to compare headlines to see which one is more appealing. This study’s findings, he argues, offer new ways for journalists to experiment with story presentation, as the Associated Press plans to do.

This research, troubling as it is, offers journalists the chance to think differently. Given the depth of our trust problem, we would do well to take that opportunity.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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