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How journalists can rebuild trust in the media and fight misinformation

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Joy Mayer of Trusting News and Alex Mahadevan of Mediawise at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg
Matthew Peddie, WUSF
Joy Mayer of Trusting News and Alex Mahadevan of Mediawise at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg

The public’s trust in the news media is slipping. It’s not just a problem for newsrooms: researchers say trust is also dropping for science, higher education and government as well.

According to a recent Gallup poll, a record 39% of Americans say they have no trust in the media at all.

Declining trust in the media is an existential problem for newsrooms, as they try to figure out how to stay relevant - and solvent. But it's not just media organizations fighting declining trust. Pew Research Center has found declining levels of trust in government and science too. And with another consequential presidential election looming, the role of journalism has never been more important.

On this episode we talk about how journalists can win back trust and help the public be better informed, Taylor Swift, the school kitty litter conspiracy, teaching people to think like fact checkers, and understanding the places where misinformation thrives.

Joining the conversation: Joy Mayer, the founder and director of Trusting News, a project that researches news consumers and then helps journalists earn trust and demonstrate credibility, and Alex Mahadevan, director of Mediawise at Poynter.

"If you think about that, your kind of diet of trust, if you think about where you spend your trust, everybody trusts somebody," says Mayer.

"So as it gets easier to find information from a specific point of view, representing a specific idea, targeting a specific demographic, people glom on to that and trust that and have less and less trust in anything that doesn't sound like that."

Mayer says trust in institutions, government and science is declining at the same time as trust in media declines.

"It's not just people who lean right who have lower trust in news, it's also independents. This is not a problem of, like, extreme political views. This is a problem of people who fundamentally see the world differently, and who don't see their own values and ideas reflected in journalism."

Mahadevan says newsrooms are competing against social media and influencers for the attention of viewers, readers and listeners.

"So you're going up against these larger forces and influx of information that is totally unregulated," says Mahadevan.

"There is no editor who's making sure YouTube videos accurate. So an influencer can turn out 500 YouTube videos in, you know, a matter of a month, that will influence a lot of how people feel about the government, about institutions, and about journalists themselves."

Mediawise aims to "teach people to think like fact checkers, think like journalists, so they can kind of be their own editors of their social media feed," says Mahadevan, through initiatives like the Teen Fact Checking Network, where middle and high school students use social media to debunk misinformation and share media literacy tips.

And he says newsrooms need to be on the platforms where misinformation is spreading.

"I think they need to be much more in tune with covering, you know, national misinformation narratives, which always end up in the local level, litterboxes in schools, a debunked theory [that] is everywhere in this country."

Mayer says the first step to winning back trust is to understand mistrust.

"My number one wish for local newsrooms is that they would remain deeply curious about what is getting in the way of trust, that they would spend time asking people, the people they aim to serve in their community, questions like, what are we getting wrong? What are we missing? Do you see your own life and values reflected in the news?"

She says while there are problems on both sides of the relationship between media organizations and consumers, the onus for change rests with newsrooms.

"If you are losing the trust of your community, there should be no higher priority than investigating why and making changes as a result of what you hear."

I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.
Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.