What audiences say local news needs to do better

October 30, 2019 01:45

The solution is local. That was the key message of the 2019 Knight Media Forum in February. “There is strength in local, and local leads to trust,” Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen said to open the event.

Now, a new “State of Public Trust in Local News” report from Knight and Gallup shows that local news is trusted, and is more trusted than national news organizations, but not as strongly as previously thought. More importantly for local news leaders, it shows what local news organizations need to do better to retain and grow trust.

The report, based on three surveys conducted by Gallup in June and July, shows that most Americans think that both local and national journalists are good communicators, passionate, professional, informed and accurate. They feel local journalists are at least as – or more – caring and trustworthy compared to journalists from national news outlets.

Strong majorities feel that the local news media covers issues of importance to daily life and reports without bias better than national news.

But according to the report just 45% trust local news a “great deal” or “quite a lot,” while 40% trust local news “some.” (National news scored 31% for “great deal” or “quite a lot” and for “some.”)

Asking about the level of trust reveals that while 85% of news consumers do trust local news, nearly half that number are skeptical in their trust.

Digging further into the data shows more about what people think local news does well – and what it needs to do better.

Accountability reporting
Across political affiliations, 61% of respondents say local news does an “excellent” or “good” job educating people about what’s going on in their area, but 60% say it does a “fair” or “poor” job holding the powerful accountable. When asked for more detail, news consumers said they want to see more coverage of drug addition, K-12 education, the environment and public works projects.

A look at the most recent Murrow Award winners shows many stations are investing in in-depth enterprise, accountability and investigative reporting (including on topics like education). Our most recent newsroom research also shows that local stations are thinking more about community-impact reporting. It’ll take investment, rethinking business models and collaboration, but this report makes a strong case for stepping up even more.
Political and social coverage
Relatively high percentages of Americans trust local news to report without bias, to give adequate attention to all sides of an issue and to give sufficient coverage to issues news audiences consider most important.

Most perceive their local outlets as politically moderate and fairly close to how they perceive their communities’ political leanings overall (even if they see local news as much further from their own ideas).

Yet 49% believe local news has become more biased in recent years, and they are half as likely to trust local news as those who don’t perceive an increase in bias.

In addition, Americans are least likely overall to trust either local or national news specifically on coverage of polarizing political and social issues.

According to the report, “a small reservoir of goodwill exists toward local news organizations because they are local, but this could quickly dry up if Americans perceive more political bias in coverage.” And perceptions of bias are tied to trust in coverage of political and social hot button issues: “As local news outlets wade into coverage of controversial social and political issues, as is more common on the national level, those levels of trust could also wane.”

How, then, to better cover social and political issues communities want to hear about, without increasing polarization and perceptions of bias?

Context, depth and transparency are all good starts. Research also suggests that if you’re going to cover social and political issues, doing so at a surface level will hurt your credibility. “Outrage news” for example – focusing on political infighting and inflammatory comments – harms engagement and trust in news outlets.

But it is possible to cover political and social issues without increasing polarization by going deeper and remembering that “For every story of significance, there are always more than two sides,” as the RTDNA Code of Ethics states. Not shying away from covering issues impacting your community, but acting as a hub for informed conversation, could build your audience’s trust.
Inspiring audiences
61% of respondents say that their local news does an excellent or good job “highlighting the people or groups that make a difference in your local area,” and the same percentage trust local to “report on different ways that problems can be solved.” 52%, however, say local news does a “fair” or “poor” job “making people feel inspired.”

How can local news outlets continue to report on people making a difference and on possible ways to solve problems, while doing more to leave people inspired?

One way could be to incorporate more reporting on potential solutions into the stories least likely to leave people inspired. Adding context and discussing potential action to common local news stories about crime and car crashes could reduce news fatigue.
Additionally, reporting on potential problem-solvers with depth, data and context – not simply as “feel good” pieces – can leave audiences not only inspired but empowered to, if they choose, take action.
Reaching different audiences
The Knight-Gallup report finds a few key audiences are less likely than others to trust local news: those least connected to their communities, those who see only a little local news, and younger people (even those who are engaged in local news).

Connection to the community, according to the report, is more strongly linked with attitudes toward local news than partisanship is. And on every topic, people who see only a little local news are less likely to rate local coverage as “good” or “excellent.”

Local news outlets, then, must ask for every segment, social post and package, if this is the only thing an occasional audience member sees from your outlet – or from local news at all – does it reflect well for that person’s trust in you?

The study also found that 42% of audiences in the 18-34 age bracket trust local news coverage of social and cultural issues very little or not at all, compared to much lower percentages of older age groups. And, while younger audiences are less attuned to news overall, “young people who are attentive to the news are still less trusting than older people who pay attention.”

Research currently underway by Northeastern University shows that younger audiences are potentially interested in news – but not in traditional local news storytelling formats. Breaking the mold by telling “relevant, innovative” stories with historical context, creative visuals (like animation) and authentic presentation could go a long way in helping local news gain the confidence of younger news consumers.
Content transparency
In a positive sign, 64% of respondents say they trust local news to define content like ads and editorials as separate from news coverage (vs just 34% who have confidence that national news outlets do so). But it may not be enough to just define different types of content (including, importantly, native advertising).

The Center for Media Engagement (CME) found that labeling news stories alone does not increase trust. In fact, nearly half of the participants in CME’s recent study didn’t notice story labels. Of those that did, many misremembered the label. Story labels with more detail and explanation about the label’s meaning had higher levels of recall, but even these labels didn’t necessarily increase trust in the particular story. Some labels – “sponsored content” – decreased trust in some cases. The results, CME says, indicate that “labels aren’t effective on their own, but they may be helpful in conjunction with other techniques for conveying trustworthiness.” Further research could indicate whether labels (with explanations) improve a news outlet’s perceived credibility overall, or whether news audiences are likely to trust different types of content, like native advertising or analysis, less than news content.
Potential collaborations
The most trusted local institutions, the Knight-Gallup report finds, are not local news outlets (which actually rank just above local government), but libraries. Yet local libraries and local news have much the same mission: help members of the community find out about what’s going on locally and connect them with trustworthy information to answer their questions. What better collaboration?

Some newsroom-library collaborations do exist – and they’re helping both institutions tap into younger audiences and fill information voids. If you’re newsroom isn’t yet collaborating with local libraries, it’s time to stop by and meet your local librarians.

Local news organizations can still claim to be trusted, professional sources of information important to daily life. But for news audiences trust to grow, rather than soften further, local news needs to make some changes.