From the time he first announced his candidacy to a rocky transfer of power in early 2021, Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency remained a complex relationship for the majority of media organizations. For most, he ensured a constant stream of content ranging from egregious to entertaining, but as battles over the veracity of information – the “fake news era” – defined his legacy, public trust in media organizations showed significant cracks. While the United States currently ranks as one of the most vulnerable of all democracies to disinformation and conspiracy campaigns, few democratic countries and media organizations remain untouched – even the pillared giant “BBC is struggling to survive the era of fake news.”
As Trump transitions out of office and the news cycles shift from what has become normal since 2016, publishers may be tempted to assume that a new, media-friendly American presidency ushers in an easier era for journalism. Yet as the United States remains the global hotspot for the Covid-19 pandemic, continued distrust in media, political news, and scientific and vaccination reporting still impact the country’s ability to overcome the pandemic and its associated economic depression and mental health epidemic. Ultimately, the state of the pandemic in the U.S. impacts the entire world, and the effects of media distrust are being felt in democratic nations everywhere. Such global consequences point to the ongoing importance of deepening commitment to media integrity and restoring public trust in journalism. As of now, the fake news era is far from over.
Local news combats media distrust and promotes democratic behavior
Industry by industry, mega international conglomerates are dominating markets–and media is no exception. Yet with these changes to local journalism comes an increase in media distrust, unquestioned political corruption, and diminished public engagement.
As of 2019, nearly 60% of Americans indicated frustration with the way democracy is working, and the Columbia Journalism Review called sustaining local news a “civic necessity,” – noting the close relationship between robust local reporting and thriving democracies. Specifically, local outlets can offer voters and community members more refined information than the coverage available from larger corporations. Researchers in the United Kingdom also found that increases in local media circulation directly correlated with increases in voter turnout in that daily news’ covered area. The reverse was also true: as local media diminished in an area, the local voter turnout diminished too.
The Harvard Business Review expanded on the reasons behind these kinds of findings: “Democracies need independent, fact-based journalism to provide a voice for a diverse range of people, to watchdog the powerful, and to keep members of a society informed. Study after study has found that without access to local news, people are less civically engaged and less likely to vote. The demise of local newspapers – which are still by far the main source of original reporting in their communities – is also linked to a rise in local corruption and an increase in polarization, as news consumers rely more on partisan-inflected national outlets for their information.”
Pulitzer board co-chair Joyce Dehli outlined that large media companies from coastal regions in the U.S. often fail to cover the depth and breadth of experiences in the center of the country, and while she suggests the nation may never again see local newspapers in the historic models, the question must be asked: “What can be done to strengthen local, professional journalism and tighten its connection to communities? It’s an important question for all U.S. journalists, not just at newspapers, and for the nation as a whole. Increasing collaboration and partnerships among professional journalists at local newspapers, TV and radio stations, digital-only organizations and nonprofit news groups, both state-based and national, holds promise.”
Local publishers are in the best position to lead efforts to scrutinize political power in nuanced ways, hold leaders accountable, advocate for informed, democratic responsibility, and restore trust in the integrity of journalism.
Publishers of every size must protect media integrity
Media integrity is not only important to reader relationships and social impact, but also for the way trusted media can combat funding crises facing publishers of all sizes – and, of course, publishers that are well-funded can produce more and stronger journalistic content that rebuilds public trust. The Pew Research Center found that 71% of Americans believed their local media organizations are doing “somewhat or very well financially,” and yet local papers have seen a 67% decline since 2005. Larger publishers have also faced steep financial challenges, and the entire industry has struggled with how to maintain funding when traditional revenue sources have been diminished by digital media access and saturation.
Yet as third-party cookies phase out, publishers with reliable brands have demonstrated their ability to collect data directly from readers through means like subscriptions, and they can leverage this data for boosting advertising income. Digiday explains, “The third-party cookie’s impending demise is one catalyst pushing publishers to prioritize their first-party data in programmatic ad sales, but advertiser demand has accelerated that push in 2020. Not only are advertisers more frequently asking about deal options involving publishers’ first-party data, but publishers are finding the deals employing those options are likely to be more lucrative.”
Media brands and local journalists who build trusted connections with their readers put themselves in a better position to add digital advertising revenue streams: readers are more likely to see the value of trusted publishers’ work and subscribe their data in cleanly sourced ways that indicate valuable data integrity to ad buyers: “The increased importance of first-party data has coincided with heightened interest among ad buyers in how that data is collected and managed…” [Digiday, 2020]
Yet, those advertiser relationships should still be carefully selected by publishers to avoid breaking reader trust. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford conducted a global digital media study and found that “People are less comfortable with political adverts via search engines and social media than they are with political adverts on TV, and most people (58%) would prefer platforms to block adverts that could contain inaccurate claims – even if it means they ultimately get to decide what is true…Overall, the most important factor for those who subscribe [to media publications] is the distinctiveness and quality of the content. Subscribers believe they are getting better information.”
Restoring media integrity is complex and requires multidimensional solutions, but there is no question media companies have a powerful role to play, and this new presidential administration offers a needed and timely opportunity to take such restorative steps. From the smallest journalism outlets to international media giants, a consistent commitment to supporting robust, local reporting and building value with readers whose subscriptions data is valuable to ad buyers are all steps media organizations can take to boost funding and rebuild public trust.