Better communication needed to build public's trust in media


A few years ago, I took a call from a reader who had some concerns about an article she had read in the Daily Mountain Eagle.

Though I don't remember the topic, the article was a wire story, meaning that it was written by an Associated Press reporter for publication in news outlets throughout the country that subscribe to the AP wire service.

After I explained this to the caller, she asked to speak to the reporter. I told her I did not know the reporter and had no way to get in touch with her. I offered to look up a number for the Associated Press, but I warned her that it was unlikely that the person who answered the phone would know the reporter either. 

Next the caller asked me where the reporter had gotten her information and why some additional information had not been included. 

I told her that I couldn't answer those questions and reiterated that the person in question did not work at the Eagle.

I tried again to explain that the article had appeared in the Eagle because we subscribe to the AP's wire service. 

She then asked why someone at the Eagle hadn't questioned the content of the article before it was published. 

I explained that no one at the paper edits AP content except for simple typos. As reporters and editors of a small town newspaper, we don't have the authority or the time to fact check national news articles. 

The AP is not a fly-by-night news agency, and we expect them to be responsible in their reporting. 

I think my answer just added to her concerns.

The story came to mind this week when one of our advertising representatives said that he had received some complaints from people about Trump bashing.

These complaints seemed to stem not from news editor Ed Howell's recent column but from overall coverage of the Trump administration by the AP.

I was surprised to hear the editorial cartoons that appear on our Opinion page each day hadn't been included among the group's grievances. 

We have gotten several complaints on those in the last couple of years. 

Again, these cartoons are the work of people who work for major news outlets and come to us through a wire service that also distributes comics such as Beetle Bailey and Family Circus.

They appear in the Eagle because the editor in charge of layout downloads a set of cartoons made available for publication each day and chooses one to appear in the next day's issue.

All of the cartoons are snarky and offensive to someone because that's the nature of satire. While it's true that most are about President Trump, there is usually at least one that is making fun of Democrats, sports stars or some other national figure.

I know Ron Harris, who is usually responsible for layout, has said that he runs as many of the latter as he can both to bring some variety to the page and because he is aware of how people feel about the anti-Trump cartoons.

The process is similar for choosing wire stories. The AP makes a certain number of articles available for publication each day. We choose the ones that we think are most newsworthy and place them in the paper as space allows. 

I know from experience that these tasks must be done quickly in order to get a paper out on time and that we spend much more time focusing on our front page than our inside pages. 

In a perfect world, our entire paper would be filled with local content.  In the real one, we try to put together the best front pages of our news, sports and lifestyle sections that we can. While hopefully informative, the inside pages are secondary to our true mission of letting readers know what's happening in Walker County.

In a recent study by the Media Insight Project, 56 percent of respondents said that journalism is on the wrong track.

The same study showed that 38 percent of respondents think journalists cover things because of their own personal biases or political views — the same percentage that think journalists choose stories based on a desire to help people make up their minds on issues.

When asked what the news media should do to build trust, nearly half said it was very important for them to know more about the news organization and its policies.

In light of this week's conversation about Trump bashing, Ed and I and several others agreed that we at the Eagle could do a better job of explaining how certain decisions are made so that readers won't think everything can be traced back to nefarious intent or bias.

We don't expect to make all of our readers happy all of the time, but we do welcome opportunities to discuss why and how we do what we do.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.