Rachael Eyler was confident she was prepared to start her career as a multimedia reporter at a small Wisconsin TV station back in the spring. She had a new journalism degree, experience from internships and campus media, and was coming off a multimedia fellowship at The Wall Street Journal in London.
On Day Two of her new job, she realized she wasn’t prepared for one aspect of journalistic life: vicious attacks by Americans who distrust the press.
Her arrival at NBC affiliate WJFW Newswatch 12 coincided with a lawsuit against the station filed by the Trump Administration over a political ad critical of how it handled the coronavirus. Viewers flooded newsroom phone lines and made disturbing comments to Eyler: “Go to hell!” “Screw you!” “You’re a terrorist!” “You’re the problem with the world!”
“It strikes a chord in you, and it really makes you see what the world really thinks of you,” said 22-year-old Eyler, a 2019 Stony Brook University graduate. “You think it’s just going to be this spectacular thing and your dreams are going to come true and you’re so excited because you worked so hard for this. And your second comment of the day is, ‘You’re a terrorist, go to hell.’”
Americans’ trust in the press has been on a downward trend for about five decades, and the Internet and social media have made it easier for disgruntled news consumers to share their displeasure with large audiences, viciously and anonymously, if they so choose.
Many Americans are convinced mainstream journalists use their platform to promote their political ideology or that of their news organization’s owners. A report by Gallup and the Knight Foundation in August found an astonishing 86% of Americans believe there’s a “great deal” or “fair amount” of political bias in news coverage. “Americans have not only lost confidence in the ideal of an objective media, they believe news organizations actively support the partisan divide,” the report concluded.
Accusations of news media bias have been around for years, but they have more resonance for some when they hear President Trump frequently attacking the press with claims of made-up sources or made-up stories — suspicions they may already hold.
Journalism students have numerous opportunities to learn of the acrimony that might await them when they start their real-world careers, and they probably have some awareness of it, said Howard Schneider, executive director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook.
“They participate in internships, hear stories from adjuncts who are professionals and watch what’s going on in the news,” said Schneider, a former editor of Newsday. “I suspect many even get their first taste of the hostility working for the campus press. But I’m not sure they’re ready for the level of hostility or vitriol.”
Eyler, who has been called “fake news” and other names for her reporting, knew before enrolling in college that many people distrust the press and criticize journalists who produce stories they don’t like; she has family members like that. She just didn’t know the criticism would be so harsh. A college course should be available to prepare students, she said.
Allison Hageman, a graduate journalism student at Georgetown University, recently began covering Shaw, a historic black community in Washington, D.C. Her sources received her with skepticism, she said.
“Comments like, ‘I trust you so far,’ and ‘You seem trustworthy,’ have been used,” Hageman said. “Even though I am covering stories for class, people want to know what the story is for, what questions I will be asking, where it will go and so forth. I have found that being upfront about how I found their contact information and what my angle is helps.”
Hageman has not experienced any hostility while reporting, but journalists invited to address some of her classes have discussed their experiences. A workshop with tips on what to do in such situations would be helpful to students, she said.
“Some of my classmates are sheltered and do not have the street sense or physical awareness to protect themselves,” Hageman said. “We could all benefit from knowing how to de-escalate situations or disengage.”
Ball State University Journalism Professor Phil Bremen uses class time to prepare students for potential unfriendly encounters. Disgruntled news consumers always have found ways to express their discontent, he said, advancing from unsigned notes to social media tirades. Not only do students need to know to expect that but also how to handle it, said Bremen, a former TV news reporter and anchor.
“Every semester in just about every course, I have tried to explain that a large portion of the audience has been conditioned to believe that whenever they encounter a fact they don’t like, it must be because the journalist is either incompetent or biased,” he added. “I have pointed out that bias, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.”
Kimlye Stager is a senior at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, majoring in broadcasting and digital media while also working as a reporter and photographer for the campus newspaper, The Argonaut. She has not run across people who dismiss her work as fiction but some have posted negative comments about issues raised in her stories and the content of her photographs. She believes the interactions can be useful.
“Receiving tough comments and constructive criticism on my reporting or photography will be helpful to develop a tougher skin and grow my skills as a journalist,” Stager said. She said the best way to address tough critics is to consistently produce credible work.
Sue Robinson isn’t sure that’s enough. As a professor and researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she’s heard from dozens of journalists for two different recent studies that touched on how they deal with the current journalism landscape and what they do to build trust with communities. Many expressed sadness over their belief that their work will never be widely trusted.
“Front and center of both [studies] was this looming shadow of fake news and the accusations of being enemies of the people,” Robinson noted. “A lot of these journalists mentioned that as inhibiting their ability to engage with people.”
Addressing the issue can’t just be about doubling down on traditional tenets of journalism, Robinson said. A sea change is needed in how journalists build trust, and that might mean re-evaluating some traditional journalistic customs. Perhaps it means being more willing to use anonymous sources since some perspectives never get heard, because people don’t want to be identified. For certain, it means abandoning the “he said/she said, pro versus con, both sides-ism” as the fairest way to structure a story, Robinson said.
Producing outstanding work is good and necessary. But journalists also need training on developing relationships with people, learning listening skills and approaching and engaging with people who live in communities different from their own, Robinson said.
Eyler said she doesn’t intend to be frightened out of the business. She got into it to serve as a watchdog for the public and to produce stories that can help people in their daily lives. She focuses on the value of her work, which outweighs any criticisms, she said.
“You have to walk into every story with a purpose, and you have to know that is the right purpose, an honorable purpose,” Eyler said.
Rod Hicks is Director of Ethics and Diversity for the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @rodhicks.