Build trust by understanding audience perception around the election

September 28, 2020 11:00

by Lynn WalshTrusting News
At Trusting News, we identify things news audiences don’t understand about how journalism works and look for potential opportunities to demonstrate credibility by explaining news processes, coverage goals and journalism ethics.

When it comes to politics and trust in the news we know:
  • There is a partisan divide when it comes to trust in news. Republicans are less than a quarter as likely to trust the media as Democrats. Independents are half as likely. (Gallup) Republicans place trust in one source, Fox News, far more than any other and rely on Fox News far more for political news. There are five different sources from which at least one-third of Democrats received political or election news in the last week (CNN, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and MSNBC). None of the 30 sources is trusted by more than 50% of all U.S. adults. (Pew)
  • The news industry suffers when we focus on the “horse race.” Policy issues accounted for 10% of news coverage of the 2016 general presidential election. “Horse race” reporting is linked to distrust in politicians and news organizations, an uninformed electorate and inaccurate reporting of polling data. (Journalist’s Resource)
  • There is a generational divide when it comes to trust in news. Only 26% of people ages 18-49 have a “fair amount” or “great deal” of trust in the news. The number is 38% among those people age 50 and over. (Gallup)
  • The public doesn’t think journalists care about them. Forty-six percent of U.S. adults think journalists rarely care about people like them and 54% think journalists admit or take responsibility for their mistakes little or none of the time. (Pew) Republicans are much less likely to think journalists provide key parts of their jobs (reporting fairly, correcting mistakes,etc.) (Pew)
Seeing these stats may make you feel frustrated. Maybe you feel determined. Or maybe you feel empathetic because you recognize how hard it can be to navigate the information climate these days. I've felt all of those feeling (sometimes all in one day) and what I have realized is some things done in the name of journalism don’t serve the public, aren’t fair or accurate and don’t cover all sides fairly. So, if your content does serve the public, is fair and accurate and you work to cover all sides fairly, you need to tell your audience.

For political coverage and the upcoming election, we can do that by:
  • Talking about how you decide what to cover. Often, accusations of bias are rooted in questions of how we decide what “news” even is. Think about how differently your election coverage might be received (and how much easier that would make your life) if your audience had more clarity around your priorities and purpose. Consider explaining the following: What is the range and scope (geographic and topical) of your election coverage? How do you decide which candidates and issues to cover, and how intensely? How do you decide which day-to-day campaign events, speeches and remarks to cover?
  • Explaining our sources and data. Journalists learn to look for independence (financial and political) as a sign of credibility. We learn where people are coming from and put what they say into context with that in mind. We look at who funds research or polls, and we inspect their methodology. But do we get credit for that work? This guide from Pew is a great example of how to talk about polling basics. And this one, from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, explains why they do their own polls (and also that polling is just one small way they cover elections). Think also about the thoroughness of our reporting methodology (when it’s done well!). Do we explain how many people we interviewed, whose perspectives we were sure to include and how extensively we’ve covered a topic? This “how we reported this story” box in a San Francisco Chronicle story is a great example of that. We should also more often explain what is not known and why
  • Talking about your ethics and how you work to be fair. When it comes to politics, explaining how we work to be accurate and share factual information is so important, especially in this very politicized world we live in. This means we have to talk about our ethical principles. In this post, WCPO explained how they are going to cover presidential candidates when they visit. One easy way to show how you work to be fair is to link to previous coverage with language that says you strive to be fair. Add a note or box with the story that links to your coverage of the opposite or different opinions and viewpoints from other lawmakers. On-air, specifically say that you are talking to Republican lawmakers today about an issue, but spoke to Democratic lawmakers yesterday.
  • Explaining the basics. With COVID-19, voting is going to look a lot different this year. From how people to vote to when we will see poll results, people will want help knowing what to do and what information to trust. Give them reasons to trust your work — not necessarily journalism overall, but what you and your team are providing. Help them prepare to vote, and solicit and answer their election questions.
Watch this video for more election coverage tips. We also have more resources here and here.
Lynn Walsh is the Assistant Director for Trusting News and an Emmy award-winning journalist who has worked in investigative journalism at the national level and locally in California, Ohio, Texas and Florida. She is the current Ethics Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists and a past national president for the organization. Based in San Diego, Lynn is also an adjunct professor and freelance journalist. She can be reached at


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