The Avis rental car office serving the Casper/Natrona County International Airport sits off-site, but there’s a shuttle at the ready. The drive is an easy two and a half miles — enough time for the friendly, courteous driver to ask a question, whose answer she seems genuinely interested in hearing.
“What brings you to Casper?”
It’s not easy to explain. But I tried.
“Kind of a town hall meeting about the news media,” I told her. “Journalists from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and others are coming in to hear concerns and complaints, answer questions. Try to take steps toward … ”
“Hmmm,” she said, eyes now firmly on the road ahead. Suddenly the temperature seems to drop, and the road seems to get longer.
She didn’t say anything until we turned off the highway toward the car rental office.
“I don’t read the papers or watch TV anymore,” she said.
After a long pause, she added, “It used to be that the news was the news. Now it’s just people’s opinions. It’s all biased.”
The shuttle driver is not alone. Especially around here.
Wyoming, population 577,737, ranks the highest in citizen mistrust of the media, according to Gallup, which is why it was chosen as the location for an unorthodox SPJ program.
For The Casper Project, Rod Hicks, SPJ’s journalist on call, organized five gatherings for citizens across the political spectrum. Held from February through July, 2019, these included group chats, visits to local newsrooms and Q&A’s with regional media professionals.
For this, the final program, entitled “Dear National News Media: Why Should We Trust You?” heavy hitters from the national journalism scene – plus popular former Wyoming Governor Mike Sullivan – faced a larger Casper crowd in the Krampert Theatre at Casper College.
“I hope to show it’s not a secret cabal out to make the President look bad,” said Buzzfeed’s Hayes Brown backstage before the event. “It’s people trying to do the best to tell the truth about what’s going on … You have a breakdown in terms of people being able to tell what is real and what is put together by teenagers in Macedonia to get a click. That’s a problem.”
While showing cynics the importance of professional journalism and the challenges that confront those trying to produce it, Hicks designed the project to also educate the press. A prime goal: Enriching understanding of the reasons behind the increasing distrust.
“I hope to learn what we are doing wrong and what we can do better to persuade people that we are doing our best,” said Lori Montgomery, deputy national editor at The Washington Post. “I keep imagining talking to my dad. He died almost three years ago and would have voted for Trump. He was very distrustful of almost all sources of information. So I’m keeping that in my mind.”
Nobody on the panel knew quite what to expect.
While at the earlier, smaller session, conversation was often civil, but there were also moments of tension.
At the second gathering, according to Hicks, an exchange between Dean Miller, former director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University, and participant Chuck Hawley bordered on combustible. The dispute? The differences and similarities between the alleged plagiarism by former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson and false claims by Fox News host Sean Hannity.
“I’m not really into yelling,” said Carolyn Toews, a participant who learned about the program from her minister. “And there was a lot of confrontation.”
Hawley, a commercial real estate broker who sees himself as fiscally conservative, socially moderate and strong pro-lifer, was the first to approach the microphone at the final Casper Project program. But he had a demand, not a question.
“I’d just like a show of hands from the panel who believe there is liberal bias against President Trump and conservative issues in the media.”
No hands were raised.
Neal Lipschutz, deputy editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal, tried to respond, but Hawley interrupted.
“Just a show of hands,” he insisted.
But Lipschutz continued, saying he could only speak for his own organization and wasn’t going to make sweeping judgments or generalizations.
Confrontational but barely volatile, that moment was hardly the most intense of the evening. Passions were higher when the subject turned to the internal decisions at the various news outlets, as to whether or not to use the term “racist” to describe President Trump’s tweets regarding immigrants.
“I do believe, given his long history, that it is extremely accurate to call those tweets racist,” said Brown, whose explanation of Buzzfeed’s decision-making was quickly drowned out by both applause and moans.
Gov. Sullivan attempted to regain control. But his “He’s entitled to …” was stepped on by an irate audience member who declared, “He’s not entitled to shit when he’s [unintelligible] on my President.”
Brown attempted to explain his perspective in measured tones, noting the Central Park Five and Trump’s issues with the Department of Justice over violating housing descrimination rules.
But that wasn’t enough to appease the audience member.
“Obama spied on our President. Why is he not in prison? I gotta go. You guys are fucking pathetic.”
A smattering of applause. A few “goodbyes.”
In much calmer tones, a teacher drew a comparison between the confrontation here and what she sees in the classroom. “Civility is so important to me,” she said, “and I feel like it’s being lost. People just want to scream at each other … Children in our community are growing up with that.”
The conversation continued, with questions raised and statements made about redactions, about coverage of Benghazi, about journalists on Twitter. Noreen Gillespie, deputy managing editor for U.S. news at The Associated Press, explained how AP stories are distributed. Lipschutz gave an intro to the Wall Street Journal’s standards and ethics. All of the journalists on the panel listened.
Afterward, at a jovial reception at a local pizza pub, the one thing all sides seemed to agree on was that the demonstrative participant was out of line.
“I see this as a positive effort,” said Gov. Sullivan. “But it’s going to take a while [for] any change. I don’t know how you do it, frankly, when you have leadership throwing matches on the gasoline.”
Lindsay Erickson, a preschool teacher who learned about the program from a local Republican party committee meeting, had held a general perception of bias in the media. And while the program hasn’t changed that view dramatically, she has decided that a story is “not necessarily incorrect because it comes from Buzzfeed.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t assume bias,” she adds. “Maybe I should read it first.”
About two months later, some of the participants are on their way to San Antonio to participate in a panel at SPJ’s Excellence in Journalism conference, where Rod Hicks will share his report on the program (see sidebar).
Heading toward the hotel, my Lyft driver asks: “Are you here for a convention?”
“Yes. About 1,800 journalists.”
“Hmmm … ” the driver says, staring straight ahead.
Takeaways from the Casper Project Report
Rod Hicks’ final report on the Casper Project included the following takeaways and recommendations. The complete report can be found online at SPJ.org/casperproject.asp
The public doesn’t know your language or processes
Working in journalism for years may leave you with the impression that everyone has the most basic understanding of how things work in the industry. They do not. Some in the Casper Project didn’t know that journalists who cite anonymous sources know the identity of those sources. There were group members who didn’t know the local newspaper runs just a fraction of the 2,000 stories the Associate Press sends out daily or that stories from news services may be drastically cut or the headline rewritten to fit available space. They also don’t know many of the insider terms journalists use. “Chyron” and “above the fold” were terms presenters used. It was unclear whether participants knew what they referred to.
There’s much confusion over commentary versus news
When project members were asked to send stories they believed were biased, even people who claimed to know the difference between news and commentary submitted stories labeled “Opinion,” “Commentary” or “Editorial.” During session discussions about news, people often referenced cable news commentators.
Coverage of Trump viewed as always negative
How the press covers President Trump came up in each of the five sessions. Those who criticized the coverage found an anti-Trump bias in seemingly all stories produced by the mainstream news media. The Wall Street Journal may have been the only exception, though it was only cited a couple of times during the project. None of the critics seemed to entertain the notion that, although perceived as negative, the reporting still could be true and fair.
Politics is the big divide
Bias in news coverage was the de facto theme of the project, and the most common place participants said they found it was in political coverage, more specifically, national political coverage. During the session that featured local journalists, the conversation still turned to national politics. Someone brought a copy of the Star-Tribune to the session—to point out problems in an Associated Press story about Trump.
Local news sidelined
The Casper Project aimed to focus on both local and national news; however, local news pretty much rode the bench for most of the project. That’s not surprising for a couple of reasons. First, studies consistently show people trust local news sources more than national ones. Also, interest in national news is up, although driven by Democrats. That’s not to say local news outlets got a free pass. Local news organizations were criticized in the sessions and on the questionnaires given to participants. They were just overshadowed in this project by the national players.
No consensus on unnamed sources
It was clear from session discussions that participants don’t care for anonymous sources, but some are willing to accept them in some rare cases. No one suggested they be used more frequently. One participant said he’s far less trusting of stories with unnamed sources. Another saw Watergate as the standard for when to allow them, because the information “paid off” on the back end.
People want to see themselves reflected in coverage
There was some discussion in the first session about the absence of certain communities from daily news coverage and the abundance of “white Christian men.” Carl Oleson said he must seek out other news sources for factual information that better reflects his community. He and his husband have a transgender daughter.
Maintain dialogue with your audience. Find out what stories they’re interested in and what they believe the news organization can do to better serve the community. Hold meetings at churches, recreation centers, libraries and other community spaces. Find out what people consider persistent problems with your operation. Listen more than you speak. Do not be defensive.
Help people understand how the news operation works and how your journalists do their jobs, such as how they know their reporting is accurate. Show off examples of coverage that has had a positive impact on the community. Realize you may be talking past people when you use industry jargon or reference the inner workings of the business. Don’t assume nonjournalists know your language.
Seek out bias
One of the main reasons people abandon a news organization is that they perceive bias in the coverage. Journalists need to take this complaint seriously and try to identify any bias before a story goes live. Consider ways to make opinion more distinct from news. Reporters who go on local or cable TV news shows should understand the predicament they put their news organization in when they misstate a fact or agree with someone else’s views.
In newsrooms across the country, journalists are taking creative steps to explain to their audience the motivation behind some of their decisions. The Tennessean, for example, created a video to explain why its editorial board asked a mayor to resign. This is just one example of actions taken by news organizations posted on the Trusting News website. Replicate some or come up with your own for your newsroom. But demonstrate your interest in keeping your audience informed about what’s being done to gain their trust.
Create your own Casper Project
Combine the first two suggestions to create your own Casper Project. Tailor it to your audience, adding or removing sessions as appropriate. Set a schedule that fits your time and budget. Act on the suggestions that surface whenever possible.
Follow the Code
SPJ’s Code of Ethics addresses many of the issues raised during the sessions. Here’s a sampling.
– Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.
– Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.
– Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.
– Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.
– Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.
– Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
– Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
– Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.