There are countless reasons why many Americans do not trust information reported by journalists, and no one change will turn that around.
But each reporting infraction pushes the trust meter in the wrong direction, even if incrementally.
The latest breach occurred in Boulder, Colorado, at the Daily Camera, where the newspaper published a nearly 900-word retraction on Page 1 pointing out an extensive list of problems with a story, including numerous false quotations. The story, about local residents reflecting on their 9/11 experiences, ran on Sept. 11, 2021. The retraction was written by two editors, Julie Vossler-Henderson and John Vahlenkamp, and ran three weeks later, on Oct. 2.
The retraction is a painstaking account of so many inaccuracies and fabrications a reader might understandably wonder if anything was correct. And the newspaper wasn’t confident it knew everything wrong with the story. The long list “does not necessarily constitute every error in the article” and “there might be additional inaccuracies in quotations,” the editors wrote, noting there were no reliable transcripts of interviews.
The reporter, April Morganroth, a 20-year newspaper veteran, no longer works at the newspaper, and management pledged to take internal steps to prevent similar incidents from happening. There was no explanation of how such a problematic story made it into the newspaper.
These types of breaches, of course, are not new and have occurred at big newspapers, including The Washington Post, where Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for a fabricated story, and The New York Times, where Jayson Blair frequently made up some details of his stories and plagiarized others in the early 2000s.
Despite all the challenges news organizations have faced in the last two decades, including eroding credibility, dwindling customers and advertising revenue and new profit-driven owners, they continue to provide an important service. Michael Schudson, a Columbia University journalism professor, noted two years ago that the press is “more responsible, more accurate, more informed by sophisticated analysis (rather than partisan reflex) than it has ever been before.”
But a threat remains: A growing number of people believe the opposite, particularly Republicans.
In just the past five years, the share of American adults who said they have a lot or some trust in news from national media fell from 76% to 58%, according to polling by the Pew Research Center released in August. Among Republicans, however, the number plummeted from 70% to 35%. (It dropped from 83% to 78% among Democrats.)
Local news organizations have been consistently more popular than national ones, with trust declining at a slower pace. The percent of people with a lot or some trust in local media reports fell from 82% to 75% from 2016 to this year, according to the Pew study.
Local newspapers in particular, like the Daily Camera, are vital to their communities. This was confirmed by a 2019 study of local news media conducted by the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University. The study examined local media in 100 communities nationwide.
“The results show, fairly convincingly, that despite the economic hardships that local newspapers have endured, they remain, by far, the most significant providers of journalism in their communities,” wrote Philip Napoli and Jessica Mahone, two of the researchers.
This is why it matters when a news organization runs inaccurate stories with manufactured quotes. A subset of Americans already believes at least some of the vast disinformation they find on social media over the work of professional reporters.
These journalists must consistently distinguish themselves as producers of accurate, high-quality journalism that can withstand scrutiny. This won’t solve all of journalism’s credibility problems, but it’s a necessary step.
Rod Hicks is Director of Ethics and Diversity for the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @rodhicks.