From QAnon to the climate change “hoax,” disinformation and misinformation have permeated nearly every corner of the internet in recent years. The result is that it’s increasingly difficult for the casual news consumer to sift truth from fiction, reputable sites from propaganda mills. Add to that, fringe movements working to discredit the work of “mainstream journalists,” and the result is a growing distrust in mass media.
Just one-third of Americans say they have a “fair amount” of trust in newspapers, television and radio news reporting, a near-record low, according to an October Gallup poll. This shift is most pronounced among Republicans in the years since Donald Trump took office: Those with at least some trust in national news outlets dropped from 70% in 2016 to 14% six years later.
Media experts say this plummeting public faith in media has reached a crisis, and it’s crucial that journalists regain the trust of their audience.
“When it comes to misinformation, a big part of what news organizations have to deal with is the idea that people can’t separate news from opinion,” said DeMario Phipps-Smith, a senior manager of community learning at the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit that works with educators and journalists to help students discern information.
Given the myriad social media channels on which misinformation disseminates and evolves, newsrooms need to more proactively combat the root causes of the problem, Phipps-Smith said. Below, he lays out three urgent issues newsrooms need to address to curb the spread of fake news and rebuild trust.
The collapse of local news
A quarter of local newspapers – some 2,500 – have closed since 2005, according to a 2022 report from Northwestern University. As a result, the number of newspaper reporters has dwindled by more than half.
The shift of advertising dollars from newspapers to digital platforms has contributed to an expansion of “news deserts” across the country, Phipps-Smith said. Since local newsrooms tend to focus on human-interest stories and community-level issues like public safety, education and city politics, their demise can leave citizens vulnerable to misinformation about their own neighborhoods.
“With the loss of local news coverage, communities are less likely to be politically informed, to be civically engaged, to see people of power held accountable, or to be able to access information they can trust,” Phipps-Smith said.
At the same time, he sees an encouraging trend: the rise of independent investigative outlets, such as The Marshall Project, ProPublica and The Trace, which specialize in criminal justice reporting and uncover abuses of power in local government. A slew of local nonprofit outlets, such as Memphis’s MLK50 and Vermont’s VTDigger, are similarly trying to fill the void left by shuttered legacy newspapers.
He said one effective way of supporting such community-focused watchdog journalism is by introducing federal legislation like the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which provides tax credits for local news outlets and broadcast advertisers. Though the bill has stalled in the House since 2021, he said, similar legislative efforts could be replicated by state and city governments.
Online abuse against journalists
“In this digital age, journalists rely on social media platforms to follow breaking news, cultivate sources and draw attention to their work,” Phipps-Smith said. “Having such a prominent virtual presence can work against them by making them targets for bullying, threats and abuse.”
Online harassment campaigns, he said, often target reporters who specialize in the disinformation and extremism beat, as well as women and people from marginalized backgrounds, including non-white and LGBTQ people. According to a global survey last year of more than 1,000 female journalists, more than three-quarters of respondents reported experiencing online abuse as part of their work. An older Amnesty International study found that Black female journalists and politicians were 84% more likely to receive hateful tweets than their white counterparts.
Phipps-Smith said newsrooms should develop policies and resources, such as PEN America’s Online Abuse Defense Training Program, which offers newsrooms workshops on data security, bystander intervention and crisis management, to better protect journalists against digital violence. To build a supportive newsroom, according to PEN America’s guidelines, managers should instill best practices regarding doxing and harassment as well as encourage staff to intervene if they witness abuse against colleagues. Journalists should feel their newsroom is invested in their safety and mental health.
The ethics of transparency and inclusivity
Faith in the press has reached a nadir: Less than 40% of American adults said last year they trusted the media, a 6-point drop from 2021.
“It’s apparent that Americans at large have come to lose confidence in the quality of news sources,” Phipps-Smith said. “News literacy can help restore trust in media by instilling an understanding of the newsgathering process and an appreciation for the critical role that a free press plays in a democracy.”
One way newsrooms can rebuild trust with the public is adhering to journalism ethics, he said, such as taking accountability for reporting errors. Changing inaccuracies without noting a correction, for example, is likely to erode trust.
News Literacy Project launched a fact-checking tool, Rumor Guard, and other educational programs to teach people how to delineate news from opinion and identify credible news sources. Earlier this month, the platform debunked a viral rumor suggesting that Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s on-field cardiac arrest was related to Covid-19 vaccines.
At the same time, Phipps-Smith said, newsrooms should more proactively engage with historically marginalized communities, such as seeking editorial input online and in person, or making stories available in different languages and on various platforms. For example, in 2020,
Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media partnered with some English and ethnic media outlets, including Reporte Hispano and Korea Daily, to translate New Jersey Covid stories into English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean. Stories that were originally broadcast in Spanish, for example, were translated into English and vice versa.
“People in the Black and brown communities where I grew up don’t always have access to a computer or a newspaper subscription,” Phipps-Smith said. “Instead of publishing an article and hoping the right people see it, how about actually taking that reporting to those neighborhoods?”
In other words, the key to combating the tsunami of misinformation is gauging a community’s needs, both in the kind of information they’re interested in learning and the specific platforms they’d consume it on.