Rebuilding a shared fact base is essential to our democracy, and it starts with local news

Antagonism toward journalism in the U.S. is at an all-time high. At the very hour we need reliable and credible facts and information to navigate crises, an astonishing number of people in our country aren’t sure where to turn or whom to trust for critical knowledge.

In January, the global communications firm Edelman released its annual Trust Barometer, and it revealed that more than half of Americans think “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.”

Just consider that one of the jarring images that emerged on January 6 was “Murder the Media” scratched into a door of the U.S. Capitol. The slogan was adopted by members of a mob that had been encouraged for four years to distrust the “fake news” and treat the press as the “enemy of the people.”

The erosion of trust in the media is allowing disinformation to fester, fracturing our nation into disparate realities. We lack a shared fact base. Those who stormed the Capitol were operating with an entirely different framework of information than those who were horrified by the day’s scenes.

So, how do we begin to rebuild a shared reality? The answer is to start close to home, in communities, by building back local news. Americans are already more inclined to trust local news more than they trust national news, according to a 2019 Knight Foundation/Gallup Study. As Alberto Ibarguen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, said when releasing the report, “The shorter the distance between our neighbors and our news, the stronger our community. There is strength in local, and local leads to trust.”

But local news is in crisis. Over the last decade and a half, the internet has crippled the local news industry by displacing advertising revenue, leaving thousands of communities without any local journalism. Without information about our communities, we turn to the echo chamber of certain national news outlets and social media. In turn, we lose a sense of connection to a shared context, a shared understanding of what’s happening in our city halls, schools and businesses. And we lose access to news we feel we can trust. Humans build trust through relationships, and because 60% of the jobs in journalism have disappeared in the last 20 years, it’s much less likely that the average American has ever met a journalist or feels a personal connection through an article about a local business they frequent or a school they send their children to.

The decline of trust in the media reflected a history that began before the Trump era. At the American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy that supports nonprofit local news, we recently conducted analyses of several news landscapes and did community listening interviews to understand how people feel about the news in their communities. We found that many people, especially people of color, have never trusted their local news. In Cleveland, for instance, a city that is nearly 50% Black, we heard over and over from the people we spoke to about the erosion of trust in their local media. Many people pointed to a specific incident that illustrated the media’s approach to covering their community: After Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was shot by a police officer for carrying a toy gun, the main local news outlet ran stories detailing the police records of his parents.
But there is hope in a new generation of local news organizations that are supported by local philanthropy, business, and readers. They make a point of soliciting active involvement from the public and gaining their trust. For example, just before West Virginia’s Legislature reconvened — and just after a state legislator joined the rioters to storm the Capitol and later resigned — Mountain State Spotlight convened its readers in a virtual event where residents shared what they wanted to know about the upcoming legislative session. Journalists at the new nonprofit newsroom will incorporate those ideas into their coverage. In September, the day after a #JusticeForBreonna protest in Memphis, a reporter from the local news nonprofit MLK50 approached a woman in the street for comment. At first, she bristled and said she wasn’t interested in speaking to the media. But when she heard the reporter was from MLK50, an outlet she’d grown to trust, she agreed to be interviewed. Mississippi Today, a nonprofit that has rapidly emerged as the largest newsroom in its state, regularly updates an FAQ page about COVID-19 vaccines to answer reader questions and combat misinformation. City Bureau, a media organization in Chicago, has held over 100 editions of their ‘Public Newsroom,’ a gathering where community members and journalists share their experiences, resources and skills to shape media coverage. These organizations, which are supported by the American Journalism Project, are committed to building trusting relationships with their audiences, and they point a way for what’s possible if we support such organizations in providing communities with the news and information they need.

A society that separates itself into silos of information is increasingly fragile, hostile and ill-informed. We have to rebuild a shared body of facts, understanding and connection — a process that begins in local communities, with news organizations that earn the trust of those they serve. Let’s get to it.