Building Trust in Local News

Ursinus College hosts workshop bringing together community members and local news outlets.

“Building Trust in Local News: Montgomery County,” held on a Saturday afternoon at Olin Hall, connected to a research project that seeks to understand how communities around Philadelphia think about trust in media. It was led by Tony Nadler, an assistant professor of media and communications studies at Ursinus.

Nadler is a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. The center explores the ways in which technology is changing journalism, its practice and its consumption, particularly as consumers of news seek ways to judge the reliability, standards and credibility of information.

He is collaborating on the project with Marc Lamont Hill, a renowned scholar, journalist and social commentator now serving the Temple University Lew Klein College of Media and Communication as the first Steve Charles Chair in Media, Cities and Solutions; Andrea Wenzel, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple; and Melissa Valle, an assistant professor in the Department of African American and African Studies and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Rutgers University—Newark. 

The researchers discussed with the workshop group two case studies: one in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia and the other in Montgomery County.

Nadler said that case study participants felt that Montgomery County is a news desert, meaning it’s generally not being covered. He noted that Germantown residents expressed that there is too much crime coverage and not enough coverage concerning community issues. Participants in the research also expressed a mistrust of motives, inaccuracies and sensationalism in news coverage.

During the workshop, Nadler and his co-researcher Wenzel suggested that community members desire more solutions-oriented coverage, participatory media production and how news outlets can mobilize and facilitate community discussion.

“You would think there is nothing but crime,” one workshop participant said. “That’s why I don’t watch TV news anymore.” He added concern for not seeing much coverage of local council and school board meetings in local news outlets.

“It takes people to do it,” a local reporter responded, noting that diminishing news resources lead to a lack of coverage. “Every time someone quits, [the newspapers] don’t replace them. Until you’ve solved the financial erosion that has impacted these publications, it’s not going to happen.”

The workshop included discussion on news resources designed to better effectively engage with communities, including on solutions journalism, an approach to news reporting that focuses on the responses to social issues as well as problems and efforts to solve them. An example presented at the workshop was the Reentry Project, a collaboration among 15 Philadelphia-area newsrooms doing dedicated solutions reporting on the topic of prisoner reentry.

Another example presented was the Listening Post Collective, which offers resources, tools, peer-to-peer support and a shared learning space for journalists, newsroom leaders and community groups looking to revitalize their local news and information ecosystems.

“Reporters are now listening to the needs of the people and they’re realizing that people living in our communities have much more granular needs from their stories,” said Doug Oplinger, a project manager for Your Voice Ohio, a collaborative effort by news organizations across Ohio, who joined the workshop via Skype. He said he hopes projects like his and other community-based news initiatives help journalists and community members begin to trust each other and help develop stories.

Nadler is the author of Making the News Popular: Mobilizing U.S. News Audiences (University of Illinois Press, 2016). The book was selected as a finalist for the Frank Luther Mott Kappa Tau Alpha Journalism and Mass Communication Research Award, which recognizes the best research-based book about journalism or mass communication published each year.

His research focuses on conservative news, media and populism, and debates surrounding propaganda and civic culture in a digital media landscape. —By Ed Moorhouse