How do journalists rebuild public trust?

By Bettina Chang

When Donald Trump announced Monday that his campaign would revoke all press credentials to the “phony and dishonest” Washington Post, I was not surprised. The newspaper that took down Richard Nixon joins a growing list of publications that the presumptive GOP nominee deems unfit to question him.

No politician embodies the hatred of journalists more blatantly—and proudly—than Trump. (“You’re a sleaze because you know the facts, and you know the facts well,” he said last month to an ABC reporter.) But more alarmingly, it’s not just Trump. Corporate CEOs, public officials on both sides of the aisle, and private citizens routinely discredit journalists in order to push whatever skewed “truth” is convenient for them. The news media has been the public’s punching bag for so long, it’s a common joke that the only people who are trusted less in this country than politicians are journalists themselves. (At last check, TV news and newspapers hold less public confidence than the Supreme Court or the presidency, but rank higher than the abysmally low Congress.) In a climate where few people are willing to stand up for the media, it’s not hard to see how the rich and powerful are quashing news organizations that dare to tell stories that displease them.

People may recognize the importance of press freedom and the First Amendment in theory, but in practice, too many are content to “blame the media” and leave it at that. (I won’t get into the problematic grouping of all so-called “media” together into one hateful blob—not today, at least.) And while I do think news organizations don’t get nearly as much credit as they should—I mean, did you hear about how the AP shut down an entire slavery ring last year?—that doesn’t mean it’s enough to rest on our laurels.

In the neighborhoods where City Bureau works, many people are distrustful of journalists. But we are building a new kind of newsroom that prioritizes community in a way that not only improves our reporting, it gets people engaged and invested in the news we produce. We are going to places of civic engagement — schools, community centers, youth organizations—and hosting town halls to directly solicit feedback and facilitate discussion about the news. We are working with researchers to find out how our communities receive and share information. And, we are recruiting people from within the communities to tell their own stories — some who aspire to be full-time journalists and some who simply want to document life in their neighborhoods.

“Community” journalism sometimes gets a bad rap, because it evokes an image of unmonitored message boards, hearsay, and pet pictures. But it doesn’t have to be that way. City Bureau is providing resources and guidance for our Documenters to attend public meetings and write reflections so there is a record of a community event that otherwise would go unnoted. For those who are interested in professional journalism, we offer paid internships and fellowships so people can test the waters. All of our stories are vigorously vetted and edited, and many end up in mainstream news outlets, to the benefit of all parties.

We hope this strategy will produce a cumulative effect, not only so that our reporting can impact public policy and improve the lives of our readers, but so that our readers feel a greater sense of agency in effecting change themselves. This, in turn, can help fuel public trust in the media in a way that ensures the community will have watchdogs for years to come.

Journalists are hemorrhaging the public trust, and we need to invest significant resources to stanch the wound now. We know it’s not easy: Our industry has been squeezed to the point where once-storied newsrooms are scraping by on 1/3 staff while trying to cover the largest mass shooting in American history. Small town papers barely have enough money to stay in business, much less file lawsuits to ensure police departments release documents that are and should be public. These are slim times. But the matter is urgent: the more public trust we lose, the fewer resources we have to rebuild it; before long, it will be too late.

We strongly believe the news media must remind its readers, every day, why its own existence is indispensable to the people in its community. That reminder doesn’t necessarily have to be a published story. It could be a workshop, or a visit to a community meeting, or just a casual conversation while we’re waiting for the same always-late bus. And we’ll keep doing it until every citizen on the South and West Sides knows who we are. So when someone says “blame the media,” people won’t think of someone sitting in an ivory tower, or a nameless behemoth—they’ll remember a friendly face or a useful story and reject that oversimplistic, dangerous statement. So that when someone wealthy and powerful tries to tear us down, we have a whole community to hold us up.

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