Each of the challenges addressed in this report – misinformation, attempts to manipulate journalists, polarized audiences and disparagement of journalists by politicians – is a discrete problem with its own unique causes and solutions.

But because they all relate to and reinforce one another, it is essential for news leaders seeking to respond to look at the combined effect of these forces on consumers. In other words, to look at it from the audience’s point of view.

One expert who has tied all these themes together is Andrea Wenzel, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University. In a 2019 study, Wenzel looked at people’s news and social media habits in what she says is an environment of “pervasive ambiguity” that audiences are feeling amid the political polarization and uncertainty about the truthfulness of what they read.

In her report, To Verify or to Disengage: Coping with “Fake News” and Ambiguity, Wenzel organized a series of 13 focus groups in four cities across the country and asked them a number of questions about how they consume information on news platforms and social media.

What she found was that people cycle back and forth between attempting to verify information and disengaging from it for stress relief. For some, she said, distrust and weariness with the effort of having to look up or validate information they were uncertain about or troubled by led to fatigue and frustration. Some indicated that disengagement from social platforms was driven by a sense of self-preservation.

Wenzel, who has put her work into practice as a founder of the Germantown Info Hub, (noted in Chapter 4) which shares information and stories from the historic Philadelphia neighborhood, writes that for media publishers “rebuilding trust means addressing fundamental relationships with the public in need of repair.”

Many of her conclusions are consistent with some of the strategies advocated by other experts cited in this report. She notes that publishers must confront and come to terms with partisan biases, that they need to examine “the toll of exclusively negative coverage,” and listen to people who say that “journalists are distant and that coverage does not reflect their lived experiences.”

The danger of not doing so is that people will turn that temporary state of disengagement into a permanent one. In its 2019 annual Digital News Report, which is based on a survey of more than 75,000 people in 38 markets around the world, the Reuters Institute said that 41 percent of people in the United States actively avoid the news often or sometimes.

There is also a commercial imperative to these efforts. If news organizations see a subscription or paid membership model as necessary to their future success, then they must seek to forge a closer relationship with their audiences. They must win their trust, helping readers get to know the journalists who write about their communities rather than believe politicians’ attacks on them. They must not amplify false information. And they must acknowledge in their stories that the world is complicated, and abandon journalism that seems to ask people to take sides in deepening partisan warfare.

There is also research showing that communities with no newspapers are more likely to be polarized, reinforcing the idea that local news outlets can serve the higher purposes of democracy.

The strategies outlined in this report may not all prove workable or effective for all news organizations. But the need for newsrooms to think about – and try – new ways to operate in today’s environment could not be more urgent, nor the stakes higher.

Recommended Reading

Journalists or others interested in exploring these topics more deeply can find further resources quoted or linked in this report.

Joan Donovan and danah boyd (American Behavioral Scientist): Stop the Presses? Moving from Strategic Silence to Strategic Amplification in a Networked Media Ecosystem

First Draft’s Essential Guides

Daniel Funke (Poynter): 10 tips for verifying viral social media videos

Cole Goins (for API): How a culture of listening strengthens reporting and relationships

Michael Golebiewski and danah boyd (Data & Society): Data Voids: Where Missing Data can Easily be Exploited

Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis (for Data & Society): Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online

Nic Newman, Richard Fletcher, Antonis Kalogeropoulos and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (Reuters Institute and Oxford University): 2019 Digital News Report

Britt Paris and Joan Donovan: Deepfakes and Cheap Fakes: The Manipulation of Audio and Visual Evidence

Whitney Phillips (for Data & Society): The Oxygen of Amplification

Amanda Ripley (Solutions Journalism): Complicating the Narratives

Plus: interview techniques to help implement such a strategy.

Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach: The Elements of Journalism

Jay Van Bavel and Andrea Pereira (New York University): The partisan brain: An Identity-based model of political belief.

Claire Wardle (First Draft): 10 Questions to Ask before Covering Misinformation

Claire Wardle (First Draft): Five lessons for reporting in an age of disinformation

The Washington Post: Guide to Manipulated Video

Andrea Wenzel (Temple University): “To Verify or to Disengage: Coping with ‘Fake News’ and Ambiguity.”

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