Assessing audience trust at CapCon 2023
By Jeff Rowe
How does an ideologically fractured nation that distrusts everything, especially the news media, learn to give reporters and their news organizations another chance?
A procession of speakers on Wednesday at the CNPA Capital Conference agreed on a few points: It’s a perilous time for the news media; it’s not all our fault and we can regain the nation’s trust, if we do some soul-searching and honest self-analysis.
About 175 attending CapCon 2023 at the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel in Sacramento learned, however, how tough it will be to restore the news media’s health, prestige and acceptance by even a grudging majority of our citizenry. Marquee speaker Bill Barr, attorney general during the Trump administration, drew laughs when he said that he didn’t pay much attention to the news media during his term of office, and thought he had done a “fantastic job” as attorney general until he started researching and writing his book, “One Damn Thing After Another.”
Increasingly, he said, journalists in Washington, D.C., abandoned “any semblance of objective reporting.” The loss of credibility means that the news media “is not in a position to counteract all the lies and misinformation” that infest Washington, he said.
Among the examples he cited was what he characterized as relentlessly negative reporting on the recovering economy during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, under whom Barr also served as attorney general. Moreover, Barr said, the increasing citizen alienation with the mainstream news media played into Donald Trump’s narrative when he launched his presidential bid.
Perhaps more ominously, the decline in journalism standards is paralleled in other professions, Barr said, putting democratic institutions in peril. Lawyers, for example, are increasingly willing to cut corners, Barr said. Barr’s most sustained critique, however, focused on the news media and particularly the scribes covering the federal government; he called on journalists to engage in a sincere “self-examination.” In his opening remarks, CNPA President and CEO Charles Ford Champion II likened the disinformation scourge to someone shaking out pillow feathers from a rooftop: They’re impossible to retrieve. The Black press is particularly susceptible to mis-/disinformation because it often lacks resources, said Regina Brown-Wilson, California Black Media executive director and leader of a seminar on hate speech. Statistics on falling news media trust are grim enough to keep publishers awake at nights.
Benjamin Toff, Reuters Institute project director, presented statistics showing trust in the news media is declining worldwide, but the descent is steepest in the U.S. Most distrusting of the news media in the U.S.: older men with less than a college education and living in small towns or rural areas. And as if the news media doesn’t have enough trouble with citizen hostility, Toff said, the research showed that indifference might be an even more challenging problem. Solutions? Every speaker offered some. Brian Karem, author of “Free The Press,” said the news media is lost in the past, too focused on making money and owned by too small a concentration of big companies. “Our audience is getting screwed,” he said.
Applause was muted after his speech. Matthew Hall, editorial and opinion director at The San Diego Union-Tribune, advised “explaining what we do and how we do it.” Toff, the Reuters researcher, recommended creating a unique brand identity, communicating that, focusing on facts and accepting that not everyone will be won over. Scant consolation, perhaps, but Toff and others noted that while the fall in peoples’ trust in the national news media has been severe, the drop in trust in local news has been significantly less.
Jeff Rowe is a freelance writer, entrepreneur and educator in Long Beach. View the schedule for the final day of CapCon2023.