When it comes to trust, local news media continue to outperform their national counterparts. But with a new Knight-Gallup study released today, we now know that we can’t take that trust for granted.
Americans still believe local news outlets are doing many things right, and the study confirms that. Six in 10 Americans believe local news organizations are accomplishing most of the key tasks of informing communities. And local journalists are seen as more caring (36%), trustworthy (29%) and neutral or unbiased (23%).
But local news outlets don’t exist in a vacuum, as this study emphasizes. The same forces that have eroded trust in the national media are now beginning to filter down to the local level. While more Americans trust their local news outlets more than national, that trust is more fragile than previously understood — and vulnerable to the same perceptions of partisan bias that threaten confidence in the national media.
As our research has shown for national media, a person’s political affiliation is a determining factor in how they feel about their local news outlet, with Democrats having more confidence in local than Republicans. In fact, the higher levels of trust in local news overall may reflect more skepticism toward national media than enthusiasm for the home team, the study also found.
This new survey shows that, as local news outlets wade into coverage of controversial social and political issues, as is more common on the national level, those levels of trust could also wane.
Why is this so important? Research has shown that the health of local news affects the health of civic life and our democracy. Without coverage, fewer people run for office, and fewer people vote and become involved in their communities. If people don’t trust these outlets, local news can’t be effective at playing that key role in our communities.
The findings are nuanced and present a complex landscape for local news. I invite you to read the full report at kf.org/trustinlocalnews, but here are six key points:
- More Americans trust local news than national news: 45% of Americans trust reporting by local news organizations “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” compared to 31% for national news organizations.
2. Local news media are better than national news at covering issues Americans can use in their daily life (79%) – and in reporting without bias (66%).
3. But local news also ranks behind most other local institutions in public confidence, with only local government ranking lower: 37% express a great deal or quite a lot of trust for local news organizations, compared to 73% for local libraries and 56% for law enforcement.
4. Partisanship is now coloring how people evaluate local news outlets: 50 percent of Democrats express confidence in local media, while only 27 percent of Republicans do – a 23 point gap. This is despite the fact that more Americans think the local news media strike a balanced perspective: 53% describe their local news media as “about right,” while 26% say it is “too liberal” and 15% “too conservative.”
5. One area where local news outlets needs to improve is in accountability reporting: Americans are not fully persuaded that local news is holding powerful people and institutions accountable: 60% feel local news only does a “fair” or “poor” job of accountability reporting.
6. Americans also feel that several topics warrant more attention from local news sources: Areas needing additional coverage include drug addiction (65%); K-12 education (64%), the environment (64%), and plans for public works projects (64 %).
Over the past few years, several initiatives have come forth to help increase trust in the media, some of which Knight has supported, to promote more transparency in the media, around sources, reporters’ backgrounds, and how they report stories. This report also proposes some suggestions for the future. Local news outlets should continue to focus on the local, instead of providing national coverage as newsrooms tend to do when resources are scarce, the study says. They can also double down the kind of accountability journalism that keeps powerful people and organizations in check – which the study found was lacking – and also reinforces shared values of transparency in government and civic life.
In November, we’ll release a second study on local news, with a particular focus on the value local news organizations provide – and the uncertain financial future they face.
John Sands is Knight Foundation’s director for learning and impact.
For more, subscribe to Out of the Echo Chamber: Rebuilding Trust in News, a Knight-Gallup podcast that examines the social and political effects of living in a polarized media environment.
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