Q&A: Gina Masullo on local news, conservative audiences, and trust

Last year, the Pew Research Center examined partisan trust, and distrust, of a range of news media outlets, finding in part that Republicans placed “lower trust in a variety of measured news sources” than Democrats. Recently, the Center for Media Engagement, in partnership with Trusting News, surveyed more than three thousand local news readers who consider themselves conservative or right-leaning. In a report, the Center for Media Engagement noted higher levels of trust for local media than national outlets, and recommended  several ways that local outlets might rebuild trust with conservative readers.

CJR spoke with Gina Masullo, the study’s primary researcher, about conservative audiences, local media, and the difficulty of building trust in a politicized social environment. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What led to your most recent research?

We’re really interested in this idea of bridging divides, with the media connecting with audiences that don’t trust them, or feel alienated by them. We do a lot of research about trust in the general population, not just among conservatives. And I want to stress that distrust in news is a problem across political groups. In this project, we were particularly interested in conservatives, because their distrust is particularly pronounced, and their trust is lower than people that have other political beliefs.

In general, studies have shown that Americans trust local news a lot more than national news. And that’s exactly what we found among the conservatives we surveyed.

Was there a sense among your survey participants that local media was more conservative?

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I don’t think you can extrapolate from the interviews that people felt that local news was more conservative. More that they saw value in what they got in local news: they felt like it told them information about their communities, and it was valuable to them. I think you can also sort of infer from what they said that, to them, local issues tend to be less partisan in general. If you care about whether there’s a dog park in your community, that’s not really a partisan issue. They felt like local news was invested in their community, and that made them more trusting.

There’s a dilemma here for reporters: how to maintain trust while reporting on ostensibly non-partisan issues that have been co-opted and politicized. Is there any way around that dynamic?

There’s no magic wand, unfortunately. We’ve found things that do increase trust, but there’s no magic wand. And that’s frustrating, but also realistic, because it took a long time to develop this distrust.

On the one hand, we had people who said, during interviews, “We just want the facts. We don’t want any interpretation. We don’t want the narrative.” But some of the examples they gave, what they saw as a narrative, someone else might see as just facts. Journalists are in a tricky situation. You don’t want to create a false equivalency between two topics; you don’t want to pretend that there’s considerable evidence that climate change is not caused by humans.

If local journalists have more relationships in their communities, that engenders trust. I don’t think you’re completely going to persuade anyone, certainly not among the more extreme voices on the right—or the left, for that matter. It’s a problem that can’t be fixed easily. But we can chip away at the problem.

Our main takeaway is that conservatives feel like they are stereotyped and painted with a broad brush in the media. Often the conservative voice quoted in a story is one many people feel doesn’t represent them, and might be more extreme. So the answer to that is, talk to more people. As one person said, don’t just interview the person with the pickup truck and the Confederate flag off the back. I think journalists can think about their language in a story, think about their word choice, and get to know more conservatives in their community, so that they understand there are multiple conservative points of view.

It seems to me that local news publishers have had to work increasingly hard to appear nonpartisan. But they’ve also struggled to retain audiences in a lot of places for myriad reasons: because of social-media platforms, because of a failing business model, because of the ubiquity of alternative information. Do you think the research that you’ve done shows the potential to build an audience? 

I think this study points to a potential to grow audiences for local news. We found participants trusted their own local news site more than national news. The more connections you make with members of this community, the more you build on that. And while we found that Fox News was the source people most mentioned most frequently as the one they trusted the most, that was only 29 percent of people. And our survey didn’t specify whether they meant the Fox News affiliate, or national Fox News, or Tucker Carlson—we need more research to fully understand that.

One thing I think was notable was that people find local news less valuable when there’s a lot of wire copy. It seemed like they almost resented it when there was wire copy in local news. Journalists understand why: staffs have been cut, people have been laid off, people aren’t buying subscriptions. There are legitimate reasons for the wire copy. But it undermines people’s sense of why they love local news, which is the local part of it.

When does it become journalistically irresponsible for newsrooms to build trust with readers?

I don’t think I can say exactly where that line is. Newsrooms have to negotiate that themselves. The people who were interviewed and surveyed in our study definitely have an interest in, and desire for, local news, so I think it would be ill-advised for local news organizations not to try to reach that audience. But there are some people who are unreachable.

I certainly don’t advocate that news organizations pander to an audience just to make money. I think that’s wrong. You want to be writing the truth. And if you’re writing the truth, and the truth upsets members of your audience, then you may have to just let them go. Still, based on our interviews, I think there are a lot of people who could be legitimately brought into a local-news audience in a more full way. And I think that is valuable. It’s a better business decision to have a larger audience. And it’s better for democracy as a whole if there’s a larger swath of people who are in the conversation together.

Is it right to prioritize conservative audiences when there are a lot of audiences—like people of color—that have never been served by legacy local newsrooms in the way that they should be? 

I don’t think it’s an either/or. I don’t think if you try to increase your conservative audience you have to depress your liberal audience or your audience of color.

We have done some research in Black and Hispanic communities, and the takeaways are very similar to those from our recent work: misunderstandings, stereotypes, painting with a broad brush. Now, communities of color are an oppressed audience. Conservatives are not an oppressed audience. There is a difference between them. But everybody in a local-news audience wants to feel heard.

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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. There’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms:

LOCAL NEWS CONTRIBUTES TO MISINFO: Though Facebook recently shared data on their most popular posts, the New York Times reported last week that the company had shelved an earlier report because of concerns about public relations. The first quarter’s most viral story, a disaggregated Chicago Tribune story about a doctor’s death two weeks after he received a COVID vaccine, demonstrates how news media can contribute to misinformation, and how the fractured media ecosystem can skew and elevate such stories, Joshua Benton wrote for Nieman Lab. (Elsewhere, the Washington Post reported on Facebook users making good-faith attempts to persuade people to get vaccinated against COVID-19).

MORE GANNETT NEWSROOMS UNIONIZE: In New Jersey, three Gannett-owned newsrooms have announced intentions to unionize, joining three other Gannett-owned papers in the state that took steps to unionize earlier this year, Poynter reported. The newly-established APP-MJC guild is made up of editorial staff at the Asbury Park Press, the Courier News, and the Home News Tribune. “There is no local news without local journalists,” the guild wrote in a statement. “We have unionized to preserve our high quality local news coverage and to build a better, more stable future.”

LOCAL TEXAS NEWSROOMS CONTINUE NEGOTIATIONS: In Texas, three recently unionized newsrooms—the Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Austin American-Statesman—are fighting for their first contracts, with negotiations at the McClatchy-owned Star-Telegram and the Gannett-owned American-Statesman moving at a slower pace, Texas Observer reported. 

LOCAL PAPER INVESTS IN PRINT: The Berkshire Eagle, a locally-owned Massachusetts publication that announced print cutbacks amid the pandemic, has purchased a new printing press. “When I announced last year that we were reducing The Eagle’s print editions from seven to five days a week, I also told you that we had adopted a long-term strategy of Being Digital,” President Fred Rutberg wrote. “Judging from the mail I received, many of you surmised that we had decided to abandon print, and that the announced reduction in print frequency was the beginning of the end of The Berkshire Eagle print edition. That was not the case last year, and it is not the case now.”

STUDENT NEWSPAPERS CUT PRINT: The pandemic dealt a blow to print products at student news outlets across the country, Nieman Lab reported. Some mourned the loss, but Nieman Lab reporter Hanaa’ Tameez tweeted, “I’m thrilled about the financial freedom this will give the editors to innovate and bring the journalism to readers in mediums they actually consume.”

NEWSROOMS LAUNCH INITIATIVES TO SUPPORT MARGINALIZED GROUPS: In the UK, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has launched an initiative called The People’s Newsroom, which will share business resources and mentorship opportunities to help journalists of color launch community newsrooms in the country, according to the Press Gazette. And Serena Chow, former editor-in-chief of Wesleyan University’s student newspaper, established a fund to support low-income student journalists of color, NBCU Academy reported. “A lot of students of color who come from low-income backgrounds depend on multiple campus jobs,” Chow told NBCU. “So coming into a paper that publishes twice a week is not a feasible time commitment. That really skewed who’s in our newsroom.”

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites