Building trust locally through Report for America

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — Journalism doesn’t work without trust.

And the American public’s trust in “the media” has steadily eroded since the days of Watergate and the Vietnam War as local news organizations have been purchased by conglomerates or gone out of business, leaving large swaths of the country without locally owned news sources.

We launched Report for America to help restore Americans’ trust in journalism by strengthening local news. Reporting corps members, as we call them, spend one to two years deeply immersed in their communities. Our first full reporting corps gathered at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg last week for training, much of the discussion focused on how local reporters can build resilient relationships as they now begin to dig into their positions across the country.

The first step: showing up.

Manny Ramos, a Chicago native who has just begun work at the Sun-Times as a Report for America corps member, talked about how he knows he can’t be successful without spending time in the neighborhoods he covers.

“My press badge doesn’t mean much if I’m not showing my face there,” he said.

Carlos Ballesteros, also a Chicago native, will be teaming with Ramos to cover pressing stories on the South and West sides. Ballesteros shared a story of a chance encounter with a local resident, who had witnessed a hit-and-run outside one of his favorite bars. When he identified himself as a Sun-Times reporter and asked for more information, she said, “I’ve been looking for you!”

As staff cuts have dramatically reduced the number of reporters working in local communities, more residents are left looking for someone to help tell their stories. In just the last four years, nearly 12,000 reporters left local newspapers in the U.S., according to a joint study by Hofstra University and the Radio Television Digital News Association. Staffing levels at local television newsrooms remained steady over that time.

By helping to offset the cost of hiring new reporters, Report for America seeks to reverse that trend. But local newsrooms cannot succeed without support from the public in the form of subscriptions, donations and engagement. And we believe that goes back to trust.

“When you have a personal affiliation with a news story, then you are very likely to see the flaws,” said Kelly McBride, vice president at Poynter. “What happens when no one knows anything about the community?”

McBride said further study is needed to understand the relationship between the quality of local journalism and the level of trust communities have in the organizations that produce it.

But we are beginning to understand that in communities with poor or no local coverage — known as “news deserts” — residents are likely to turn to cable news pundits and questionable internet sources for their information.

This deficit feeds an environment where more than 60 percent of Trump approvers agree that journalists are an “enemy of the American people,” according to research presented by Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark Chair for Journalism Ethics at Poynter.

“I’m sure in every community you will be called ‘fake news,” Lakshmanan said in addressing the reporting corps, which will be working in Texas, New Mexico, Illinois, Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. “This whole country needs a Journalism 101 class.”

Beyond simply showing up, reporters working in local communities can help teach the public while incorporating what she calls the “building blocks of trust”:

  • Editorial independence: Explain your organization’s policies on reporting the news free from influence by funders, advertisers or politicians.
  • Accuracy: Getting the story right. A fundamental rule.
  • Fairness: Not the same as “balance “ or “equal time” which implies every story has two or more equally important or correct “sides.”
  • Transparency: How was the story reported and edited, and by whom?
  • Inclusiveness: Many communities across the country have felt left out of or misrepresented by news organizations for generations. Including ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, women and other underrepresented groups. It’s up to these organizations and their staff members to invite people into the reporting process and rebuild relationships.
  • Accountability: Communities expect news organizations to answer to them first. Be reachable and be accountable.

And for Report for America corps members working on the ground, the training week‚ which included a few days at the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference in Orlando, a chance to share tips about connecting with sources and building trust with readers, viewers and listeners.

A theme of the week: “Use what you’ve got.”

For Will Wright, who is covering Eastern Kentucky for the Lexington Herald-Leader, that means using his love of the outdoors and knowledge of local fishing rivers to help him report in rural areas.

“If you have the same hobbies, you can’t be that bad,” Wright said.

Caity Coyne, covering the southern coalfields of West Virginia for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, said a lot of it comes down to attitude.

“Stay humble, let them impart their wisdom,” she said, adding that this works for public officials who may share more than they’d intended to.

McBride, the VP at Poynter and a leading ethicist, reminded the group that journalists serve multiple constituents for every story. These include their sources, their editors, the community, the profession and our larger society. These constituents don’t always see eye to eye.

“When we make a bad ethical decision, we have chosen to honor the wrong loyalty,” McBride said. “And it’s very hard to be loyal day in and day out to people you don’t see.”