Distrust in news is a national problem in the United States — and it’s especially pronounced among those who consider themselves politically conservative or right-leaning.
To find out how news organisations can help bridge the divide between the media and these audiences, the Center for Media Engagement partnered with Trusting News and 27 local newsrooms across the United States to survey and interview people who consider themselves politically conservative.
The findings revealed participants often felt portrayed stereotypically in the news, and they believed newsrooms need to address perceptions of bias against conservatives and those with right-leaning viewpoints. The discussions with interview participants helped us identify six approaches journalists can take to better connect with their conservative audiences.
How conservatives feel about news
Perceptions of bias in news coverage: Perceptions of bias was one of the most commonly raised concerns. Many participants identified bias as when a media outlet appears to be interpreting the news or its implications. This includes factors such as story selection, journalists’ attitudes toward stories, and how journalists phrase questions.
Concerns about whether national news is believable or trustworthy: Participants’ feelings about local news outlets were much more favourable than for national news outlets. For local news, trust was higher for TV station affiliates than for newspapers. However, many participants were concerned when local news seemed to rely too heavily on national news sources. Of the national outlets, CNN was mentioned most often as the most untrustworthy source, and FOX News was mentioned most often as the most trustworthy source.
Concerns about portrayals of conservative and right-leaning Americans: Many participants felt that conservatives are often stereotyped by news media and are often lumped into one group that shares similar views. They suggested journalists provide a more nuanced view of conservatives and those with right-leaning beliefs.
How newsrooms can help bridge the divide
1. Build relationships with people who have conservative and right-leaning viewpoints.
Creating relationships between journalists and conservatives was one strategy participants thought could help combat stereotypes. Advocating for these relationships, one participant stated, “It makes it just a little bit harder to quickly just put them in a box and say, ‘Oh, this is why they’re saying that.’”
2. Include a variety of voices from people with conservative and right-leaning views.
As a way to alleviate concerns about the portrayal of conservatives, participants suggested journalists interview a variety of conservative sources — representing a range in age, race, and beliefs —to get a more diverse view of conservative thinking. As one participant said, “I’m tired of 65-year-old dudes going on there and pretending to, you know, say the same things that I do.”
Participants also suggested journalists avoid using catch-all labels for conservatives.
3. Consider diversity of political beliefs and backgrounds when hiring.
Participants noted they wanted newsroom diversity efforts to include journalists with varied political beliefs and backgrounds. They perceived newsrooms to be staffed mostly with people who are politically liberal, which they thought could lead to biased stories.
4. Focus on story facts, not interpretation.
Interpretation is what some participants explained as “having a narrative.” They believed stories often include phrasing that is meant to show the story in a certain light and can often include overly simplistic views of conservative viewpoints.
One participant shared this example: “I’ve always, with very little exceptions, seen media portrayals of … conservative views on abortion as, you know, they say they care about the babies, but it’s really just a desire to control women’s bodies. … That’s really the only narrative that I see.”
5. Correct mistakes promptly.
Owning up to mistakes and fixing them promptly was discussed as a way to build trust. Some participants pointed out, however, the correction should be presented as obviously as the mistake: “When they know they get it wrong, acknowledge it with the same level of passion that they printed the mistakes in the first place. It shouldn’t be the little apology in the lower right-hand corner of the last page.”
6. Don’t criticise only one side of an issue.
Some participants felt stories seemed to favour or criticise only one side of an issue. Simply put, they wanted journalists to be skeptical of all sides of a story. As one participant noted, “If you would’ve challenged a Republican on a statement, you should challenge a Democrat on … the comparable or competing statement.”