It’s not easy for a journalist to conduct interviews in a crowd while the speaker at the podium is pointing, telling everyone reporters aren’t to be trusted.
“I hate some of these people, but I’d never kill ‘em,” Donald Trump said at a December 2015 rally in Michigan, pointing the press. “I would never kill them. I would never do that, but I do hate ‘em.”
Trump framed news media as his enemy, so that by the time of an October rally in Cincinnati, the mere act of reporters filing to their seats caused supporters to erupt into an angry, unnerving roar, according to a New York Times account.
We took a beating in 2016. But it’s not like we didn’t see it coming.
Several Ohio news outlets, including The Lima News, joined a year ago to form the Your Vote Ohio project, which grew from a recognition that we were out of touch with the people of our state who were feeling helpless and becoming angry.
We set out to reshape ourselves by doing three things: Make sure you were heard in the 2016 presidential election; provide you with information vital to making good decisions; and meanwhile look for ways to rebuild trust between you and us.
You told us you want to know who we are and how we do our jobs.
So that’s what this is about. After a tense year, we’re telling you what we did in 2016 and invite your direction for 2017.
Over the next few days, we will publish the final installments of the Your Vote Ohio election project, then meet in Columbus to discuss what we learned and consider how we can help Ohioans digest the work of the new administration.
That meeting will have its holy schnikies moment. We had no idea that at the end of the election cycle, as we arrived at possible solutions to rebuilding trust, that the entire news industry would be in upheaval over the very question that launched us.
We won’t fool ourselves in that meeting.
As Beacon Journal politics reporter Doug Livingston observed a few weeks ago, we probably haven’t changed Ohioans thoughts about the press, but we have changed the way some journalists respect the people.
Nuts and bolts
This has been an expensive and time-intensive endeavor.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation provided $175,000 to conduct polling to learn what was important to Ohioans. The polling defined our coverage. There also were three intense, three-day sessions with regular people in which they wrote prescriptions for restoring trust in the media.
In weekly phone conferences, newspapers, radio and television stations divided responsibilities for stories that grew out of the polling. The Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com served as the story hub, the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron did the polling and the Jefferson Center, a St. Paul-based civic engagement organization, conducted citizen workshops in Akron and helped manage our web presence.
By June, we had our first round of research showing what Ohioans wanted from us, and we began to produce news according to that format.
So, as we emerged from the election with some possible solutions to the trust issue, others in the news industry were recognizing the problem.
We can’t be shy about this: Trust in traditional media has waned the last several years. Donald Trump transformed the lack of trust into anger.
As early as 2012, media animosity surfaced as the Beacon Journal, the Bliss Institute and the Akron faith community explored growing incivility.
UA polling showed that people blamed media most of all for creating an unhealthy environment. The National Institute for Civil Discourse held a media retreat in October 2015 that spawned the Your Vote Ohio project as Donald Trump said he hated journalists.
By the time of our November post-election poll, Trump supporters unequivocally blamed media more than anyone else for the sad state of politics — 53 percent said news media are “very responsible.”
In contrast, only 43 percent of Clinton supporters said the same. They were more likely to blame the candidates.
And as for who was most dissatisfied with media coverage, it was 65 percent of the Trump supporters compared with 32 percent for Clinton’s fans.
For decades, local media equipped people to participate in their communities.
We viewed ourselves as critical. We still do.
But today we fear that too many of you don’t, partly because our work is lost in the internet mayhem. We compete with sources around the world, some of which are carelesss, or, worse, fabricate information.
Our business model was disrupted when advertisers — the main source of our income — chose to reach their markets directly rather than on local radio and TV or in print. Most newsrooms are half the size they were 10 years ago.
So, we wanted guidance. In workshops led by the Jefferson Center, we heard citizens tell us:
• Stay focused on what is important to the people.
• Show how major issues affect people differently.
• Be bold and graphic with facts.
• Tell people how journalists do their work.
• Don’t be aloof. Engage children, young people and adults in problem-solving conversations.
In one of the three-day citizen sessions, people worked hard to write those prescription to restore trust between people and the press.
Solutions seem simple.
But one woman, after reviewing the guidelines she helped write, said that even if reporters follow the guidelines, she still won’t trust them.
In the UA post-election poll, 70 percent of Ohioans said it is “very important” that news media fact-check the candidates. Yet, Andrew Meyer, news director at the National Public Radio affiliate WKSU in Kent, said a critic recently told him that fact-checking is an indication of reporter bias. That person said journalists should transcribe candidate statements and no more.
And then there was our grand experiment.
Polling of Ohioans showed us which issues to address, among them immigration. WKSU reporter M.L. Schultze took the lead and used the prescription as the guide.
There was one holdout, a person troubled that the story didn’t reflect immigration as the overt threat to the country as she saw it.
Others challenged her, saying Schultze had provided an accurate and fascinating Ohio perspective backed by solid data.
She wasn’t satisfied.
She wondered, was WKSU’s reporting influenced by the immigrant population on campus?
Is it possible to reset our relationship? And how?
Reach Doug Oplinger, managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, at [email protected]