Media trust in America has sunk to alarming lows. From an acme of some 70% of Americans who reported having a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media in 1976, that number had plummeted to 32% by 2016.
The Society of Professional Journalists, a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to perpetuating a strong free press, set out to get to the bottom of this troubling erosion. The organization in 2017 tapped veteran editor and journalist Rod Hicks — a former editor with the Associated Press, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and elsewhere — to pilot a project aimed at better understanding, and potentially reversing, the trend.
The quest landed him in Casper, which studies have identified as a ground zero of sorts for media distrust.
There, he launched The Casper Project, a 6-month-long series of community discussions aimed at gaining a deep understanding of the causes behind distrust. During the project, some three dozen Casper residents — including 16 conservatives, 12 liberals and seven moderates — gathered every few Tuesdays. During sessions, participants aired concerns about media bias, learned about the functions of newsrooms and took in panels and presentations from media professionals.
At times, things grew tense. There were occasional outbursts. And in the end, minds weren’t drastically changed. But, Hicks said, it was a valuable and eye-opening experience that contained important lessons both for journalists and news consumers.
“Going into this, I assumed that we would not change most people’s minds,” Hicks said. “I wanted them to get something out of it even if it didn’t change their minds. So, we now have three dozen people who are more savvy news consumers, and I think that is noteworthy.”
It was also personally illuminating for Hicks, who had never set foot in Wyoming before the project. Hicks, who presented his final findings to participants and the public last week in Casper, sat down with WyoFile to talk about the project, why it’s time for media outlets to take a hard look in the mirror and his first encounter with real-life cowboys.
WF: Why did you pick Casper for this project?
RH: I did not want the selection of the place that we went to be totally arbitrary. I went to some organizations that do polling, particularly polling of the media, like the Pew Research Center and Gallup. When I talked to Gallup, they told me that just the year before, a survey they had released identified the top states with the highest level of media distrust. And Wyoming was at the top of the list.
Now, you have to put it into perspective. Everybody hates the press. So it’s not like Wyoming is way up here and the rest of the country is way down there. Wyoming is slightly above everybody else.
And [I chose] Casper because it’s centrally located, has a good population, it has the biggest newspaper and the only newspaper that is published seven days a week, plus it has some other local media options in television, radio and online.
Did you have much experience visiting Wyoming or spending time here?
I had never been to Wyoming before in my life, and I’ve been to like 36 states.
What did you think?
It is very unfamiliar to me, but I think it’s nice. One of the things I thought was so cool was seeing the mountains in the distance and the landscape. And I was intrigued by the culture there. I went to restaurants on the weekends, and the guys had on their jeans and boots and plaid shirts and cowboy hats. That’s how they dress up to go out. It’s not just the stereotype. I was intrigued by that.
What were you looking for in participants of the project?
I wanted people who were going to be thoughtful and who really wanted to let us know legitimate concerns that they had with the media. I wanted there to be above all else some legitimate concern with how the media works and some interest in seeing it improve.
What would you say were your major takeaways from the sessions?
One of the things that people kept saying, throughout the entire project, was that the media is biased. This even started before the sessions started because we gave everyone a survey as part of their registration to participate, and one of the questions was, “what’s the biggest problem with the news media?” And bias was the winner, by a long shot. I mean, overwhelmingly. So that theme kept coming up. And one of the takeaways for me is that there just has to be some legitimacy to that. I really do believe that journalists need to look for that in the copy. Before I had this job, I worked at the Associated Press for almost 10 years as an editor. If I were to go back to the AP editing copy again, I think that I would do it with a different eye. I would be looking for things like that.
You also noted in your report a difference in perspectives of local versus national news outlets, particularly when it related to anything about President Trump. Can you talk about that?
One of the things that the people in the group did was go on a tour of the newspaper and the TV station. The editor at the newspaper said he was expecting people to come there complaining that, you know, “you give this high school sport more coverage than this one.” But all they wanted to talk about was national politics, specifically how Donald Trump is treated in the press.
I was a little surprised by that. I went in knowing that local media enjoys a higher level of trust than national media. So I expected them to have more complaints about the national news than local. But I don’t know that I expected them to largely focus on national news.
And it sounds like no participant changed his or her mind in drastic ways regarding their feelings on the press. Despite that, do you think it was a valuable exercise, and why?
I think it was valuable. We were trying to accomplish two things. One, we wanted to educate people. We wanted them to become more discerning news consumers. We wanted them to better understand how the media works, and what goes into the types of decisions that news organizations have to make. I wanted them to better discern between news and other types of information — propaganda, advertising, satire even.
The other side of it is that we wanted to really understand what is the root of this distrust. What is the press doing wrong that makes people feel that it is overwhelmingly biased. And the reason we wanted that was because we wanted to figure out what can we do differently to win these people back.
If you had one recommendation for media outlets to help salvage and rebuild this, what would it be?
If I only had to say one, it would be to turn on your bias antenna when you’re reading copy or writing your news product. Look for it. Question whether this can be construed as biased. Because I don’t think you’re going to catch it unless you are actively looking for it. We’ve become immune to it.
Another thing I know you were stressing to media is better engagement.
Yes. We need to demystify this process that we go through. I make a mention of Trustingnews.org. I really hope that journalists go to the website and look at the examples of what newsrooms are actually doing. They are explaining controversial decisions that they make, they are opening up to their audiences, looking for opportunities for engagement. I just think you can’t do that enough.
You have to be really transparent and really talk to your audiences. Try to get to know them, try to get to know what they want. And respect them.
Another interesting thing you brought up is that professional journalists know all the intricacies of the job and maybe take for granted that many people don’t.
We have our own jargon in our business. We think that everybody knows what a cutline, a headline, a dateline, all these lines are. And they don’t! We talk about anonymous sources, and we expect that people know what that means. People do not know what that means.
We have to understand that we are so close to this that we forget that the general population doesn’t know all this stuff.
There has been a lot of negative news about the decline of journalism in the last decade. Despite that, can you talk about its role in a healthy democracy? Why is journalism important enough to try to bolster with efforts like this project?
We asked people in this project in their registration form, “How important is a free press to a democracy?” Everybody indicated it was important. And they are right. I hope people also recognize that if the press is essential to a democracy, the fact that they don’t trust it is a problem.
In these times, we really, really, need a free press. We need to put a check on power. That’s one of the most important things we can do as journalists. And that’s the way it was intended. We’re in the Constitution for a reason. And so, the press needs to do the best that it can to be fair and to be unbiased and to be accurate.
This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
This story has been updated to clarify the meaning of the first sentence. —ED.