A reckoning with why trust in news is so low

In 2023, media outlets large and small will have to deeply consider how their editorial strategy lines up with the reasons their readers and communities turn to them for journalism.

It’s tempting to lump this in with the fact that trust in journalism and journalists is at an all-time low, even when compared to the social media platforms where those news outlets are clamoring for eyeballs. But rebuilding community trust and re-examining editorial priorities are two very different things.

While it’s clear that journalism desperately needs to reckon with itself over why public trust in the institution is so low (something that many journalists, especially younger journalists and journalists of color have been trying to explain to their mastheads for years), that’s a different conversation. What 2023 will bring, with all of its “difficult economic headwinds” and the knock-on effects of 2022’s media layoffs, is acute pressure from readers and audiences that their perspectives and views be more truthfully, honestly, and intelligently engaged by the publications they still turn to for news and information.

They’ll ask why consistently wrong, highly paid columnists continue to dominate newsroom mastheads, and where the writers who live in, lived in, or at least understand their communities are. They’ll ask those news organizations for real change. And if they don’t get it, they’ll start leaving in numbers significant enough to warrant concern.

Today, many of those same outlets are struggling with internal conflicts between wealthy owners, publishers, and mastheads versus their younger, more diverse journalists, on-the-ground writers and editors, and idealistic fellows and early career reporters eager to write true things and speak truth to power. In the coming year, there’s every reason to believe that ideological disconnect will extend to our communities and our readers, all of whom will demand more from us in our coverage and in our interactions with our readers.

But it’s not just more reporting or smarter editing that they want: It’s more intellectual honesty in our reporting on topics that matter to people or have the potential to cause harm. It’s more empathy when it comes to the real-world impact that our journalism has on those same communities. It’s an acute understanding of whether our reporting is punching up at those in power and with authority or punching down to maintain the status quo and pit neighbors against one another.

Our readers want us to help them live better lives and thrive in the world they have to navigate. They’ll trust us when we make that our priority over re-writing offensive celebrity tweets or wringing our hands over calling lies what they are.

When I worked at The New York Times, I had the opportunity to look over some interesting audience data. We’d asked readers around the country what kinds of coverage they looked to the Times for, and what they knew they could rely on the institution to cover. The answers were pretty typical: People definitely trusted the Times’ on-the-ground reporting, especially when they could tell the reporter understood the communities and issues they were reporting on. They didn’t terribly appreciate the op-ed pages, and wanted more stories that openly and honestly explained why the latest breaking news matters to them.

Now, at Wired, I see the same trends. Our readers love our coverage of a variety of topics, but they want more practical advice on how to improve their own lives and their relationship with technology. They want to know how to advocate for and protect their privacy. They want their data to be safer, their kids to be safer online, and to be able to engage with online communities without fear of harassment, discrimination, or hatred. They also want, predictably, to know why the big banner stories we write actually matter to them, beyond being engaging and fun to read.

I’m a service journalist. My entire career is based on taking complicated and important topics and distilling them into the need-to-knows for my reader. And too often the way large media organizations approach journalism implies that their audience is actually the Pulitzer Board, as opposed to their subscribers and the general public. I often hypothetically other editors: If your journalism doesn’t serve your reader, who are you writing for? What exactly are you trying to do?

I’ve found this question — or some version of it — is earning fewer confused glances than it used to and more honest, deep thought. More newsroom leaders are eager to realign their own editorial missions with the needs of the communities they serve, whether on a local or national level. And as more media companies are either managed or consumed by private equity firms and local news outlets shutter and leave news deserts in their wake, one way to remind your readers that you’re important and worth paying attention to is to, well, actually serve them in a meaningful way. We will all have to answer to our readers as to why our work matters, and why our readers should pay for us to keep doing it.

We’ll have to stop assuming that prizes and book deals make the case on our behalf, and stop clapping ourselves on the back and eating venture capital money to start more outlets that say the same things as the old outlets do except in a different font or color, while local newsrooms don’t have reporters to send to city hall or sit in on school board meetings.

And as a society, we’ll be better off when we do. I can’t wait to get started on that work.

Alan Henry is special projects editor at Wired and author of Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized.

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