Listening is not enough: Mistrust and local news in urban and suburban Philly

 
For many communities, the roots of mistrust go deeper than recent concerns about what’s being called “fake news.” That’s not to say that these deep-seated causes of mistrust don’t sometimes converge with disinformation.

Baltimore pastor and community activist Dr. Heber Brown III, for instance, questioned the Blacktivist Facebook account—now under scrutiny as a Russian effort to influence US politics—way back in 2016. At the time, the account had called for a protest march in Freddie Gray’s honor. But Brown and other veteran community leaders correctly deduced that the site’s author was an out-of-towner with an external agenda. Only later did he learn it was being run by Russian operatives.

As Brown told the BBC’s Carrie Gracie, Russian manipulation was only possible because of “existing conditions of oppression” in Baltimore, and the US more broadly: “If those root causes and root issues were addressed adequately, I’m not sure if the Russians or any other element would have had much of anything to seize upon to try to dupe the American citizenry in the first place.”  

Based on our research with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, we find there is a mistrust problem in the US, but that disinformation is more of a symptom than a root cause. Focusing on two communities with different histories and relationships with the news media, we explored how the long-existing structures of journalism have amplified institutional distrust. Parachute journalism models often leave communities feeling distant and misrepresented. While many today point to the promise of local news as a means for building trust with communities, its existence alone is not enough—and it’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Mistrust is felt differently in communities with histories of stigmatization and in those where local news is largely absent. A lack of trust in media, issues of perceived relevance, and a sense of relentless negativity have led many readers to vacillate between disengaging from the news for periods of time, and seeking out alternative sources from interpersonal and social media networks. Making an attempt at repair will require a shift in how media outlets conceive of their role—from providers of information to conveners of discussion around what issues are important to the communities they serve and how they should be covered.

This is not a question of simply listening to audiences as consumers and responding to their desires in a populist sense. Rather, by engaging communities directly in dialogue and offering them ways to participate, media can act as a facilitator and mobilizer in shifting narratives toward the problem-solving people told us they want from their news.
 

Methodology

Sign up for CJR's daily email

In an attempt to understand what a healthy relationship between communities and news media might look like, we focused on two areas in the broader Philadelphia metro media system: Germantown, a majority African-American, politically progressive neighborhood, and Montgomery County, a majority-white suburban area where nearly half of voters who participated in the 2016 election supported Donald Trump.

We selected these two sites to illustrate the challenges of imagining a shared and interconnected metro regional community, and to examine how residents navigate local news landscapes they see as either providing too much of the wrong kind of stigmatizing news (Germantown) or lacking holistic coverage (as in Montgomery County).

Over the last six months, we spoke with 43 residents from Germantown and Montgomery County in a series of seven focus groups, tracked story diaries in which participants noted how they shared and talked about stories, and conducted individual interviews. Our goal was to examine the local storytelling networks in each area—and how residents, community groups, and local media are, or are not, connected.

Here, we share an overview of how participants conceived of and negotiated trust with news outlets and other sources of information. Based on residents’ reflections (whose names we changed to protect anonymity) about what an improved relationship with the media might look like, we outline recommendations for local stakeholders and for anyone interested in developing healthier relationships between news media and communities.
 

Roots of Mistrust in Germantown


Covering crime, not community

When residents of Germantown feel the media does not cover them fairly, they are not saying that the neighborhood is without its struggles.

According to 2016 US Census Bureau from the American Community Survey, 25.7 percent of Philadelphia residents live below the poverty line, making it the poorest city among the 10 largest in the United States. Germantown, a neighborhood located in the lower northwest area of Philadelphia, is considered one of the country’s most historic communities. Yet, with a median household income of $30,400, it is also one of the city’s most distressed. By numerous indicators, from rates of poverty to education and crime, Germantown fares worse than greater Philadelphia averages on the whole.

The second Great Migration of African Americans from the South in the 1940s produced a major demographic shift in Germantown, attracting thousands of African Americans to the area. An additional influx of African Americans in the 1950s resulted in a significant exodus of the white middle-class to suburbs (such as Montgomery County) and an increase in those with fewer economic resources in the 1960s. Germantown continues to fit Philadelphia’s pattern of high Black-white segregation, as nearly 84 percent of the population is Black. Germantown is therefore largely recognized as a Black community.

As residents reflected on how they believe the media depicts their community, many were dismayed by what they felt was neighborhood stigma, perpetuated by media outlets, often tied to the community’s racial composition. “I think that there are plenty of communities, especially white middle-class communities, that are reported much more fairly,” noted lifelong Germantown resident Jamal.

Many participants agreed that Germantown was often covered with “a negative bias,” and that there was never anything positive about Germantown on the news. There is, they thought, a relationship between place identity and media treatment. As Donna explained, “Stories are slanted according to the zip code.”

One of the greatest concerns residents expressed was related to a perception of bias in the representation of crime. Celeste said, “So, it seems like they only report on crime in certain neighborhoods, and I’m pretty sure crime goes on all over Philadelphia. They tend to focus more on certain areas like predominantly Black neighborhoods where crime goes on in the city.”

The broad consensus was that crime incidents get exaggerated through the sheer number of stories circulated and the excessive amount of time the media spends on each story. As Carrie explained:

“I mean, I just remember always noticing it on the news, even growing up. Like, the positive stories about, you know, some kid getting accepted to college at the age of 16, like that’ll be 30 seconds. Then, the negative stories, you can go into the kitchen, go to the bathroom, come back, they’re still talking about it.”

Residents, including Celeste, voiced a concern that this kind of biased reporting shapes how people see the neighborhood: “People will automatically get the perception that this neighborhood is bad.”

One caveat to the crime over-reporting was a sense that the crimes against residents related to neighborhood development were not being told. Martha and Kathy had this exchange during one Germantown focus group:

Martha: Yeah, what’s under reported is people that rip us off.

Kathy: Yeah.

Martha: Not at the end of a draw on the street, but. . .

Kathy: Yeah.

Martha: . . .our landlords who raise the rent $300 a month, you know.

Kathy: Yeah, those kinds of crimes.  

Kathy went on to lament that the media defined crime narrowly and only deemed violent crime as “newsworthy.” News coverage, many said, does not prioritize other crimes that have a significant, day-to-day impact on their community, like when commercial tires are dumped in the neighborhoods and residents have to bear the cost of cleanup.

Participants suggested that the time devoted to telling stories about crime should be redirected to other pressing issues that they felt were going virtually unreported: education (e.g., school closings, the lack of activities for young people, etc.); jobs, underemployment, unemployment, and living wages; limited public transportation options; limited shopping resources, especially compared to what once existed in Germantown (fewer shops in town, prices are higher, limited parking, etc.).

One area of considerable concern for residents was development related to gentrification and housing. Participants wanted more reporting and discourse around the differential effects of the “real-estate boom,” from which long-term residents do not feel they are benefitting. They voiced a desire for reporting on the need for housing activity in Germantown to benefit locals and the difficulties around, as Jamal said, the “restaurants trying to buy up [the] neighborhood.”

Germantown, Philadelphia.

Mistrusting motives

Germantown residents inferred various reasons and motives behind what they saw as mischaracterizations and biased reporting. These vacillated between a belief that media outlets are guilty of carelessness, negligence, and indifference, to a strong sense that the media is very intentional, even malicious, in the way it chooses to present issues and places.

Residents suggested that local journalists regularly make mistakes in reporting but aren’t self-correcting. For example, Jamal mentioned that reporting often assumed all activity on Germantown Avenue was in the Germantown community when, in fact, the avenue runs through multiple neighborhoods.

Kathy said that inaccuracies and a poor sense of local geography were exacerbated by a lack of “homegrown journalists.” Persistent inaccuracies in story details were also attributed to a belief that news media does not do sufficient original journalism and consistently relies on the same sources for information, whether they be other news outlets or poorly executed police reports, and, subsequently, reproduces false narratives.

On the malicious side of the spectrum, there was also a consensus among Germantown residents that the media often consciously chooses sensationalism over substance. Participants discussed corporate media’s desire to create “clickbait” due to financially-related motives, saying, “At the end of the day, it just all comes down to a dollar.” While residents felt this happens because sex and violence is what keeps audience attention, some said they believe there is an almost symbiotic relationship between the media and audiences when it comes to sensationalized content:

Jill: If it’s not a certain body count or if there’s not a certain whatever, nobody is coming out to report on that stuff.

Celeste: But on the flip side, you’ve got a lot of people that’s addicted or just more intrigued with stories of crime and stuff. Like they might tell stuff about good stuff that’s going on in the community, but you have something that’s oh, must be a slow news day.

Facilitator: OK.

Celeste: It’s also, I figured out—it’s also, you know, it’s the media but it’s not just the media. Most of the residents have to take responsibility too for a lot of things that’s going on in the community.

Residents described a circular loop: the media develops violent content because this is what presumably attracts audiences, and audiences are attracted to violence because it’s what the media constantly shows them.

A number of participants also suggested that biased coverage of gentrification was financially motivated. Residents believed that the media is an organ for private businesses and political interests. Jamal said that the media was intentionally depicting North Philadelphia in a negative light because Temple University had plans to expand development in the area and wanted to keep property costs low:

“They have planned long-term effects on what they’re going to do without the input of anybody that’s here. . .And that’s one of the reasons why we’re being affected by the things that are happening. That’s why they don’t want to portray the good things that are happening.”

Some believed the media was intentionally trying to drive a wedge between communities and people. When asked whether she felt the media was doing a good job of reporting stories on police brutality, Celeste shared:

“No. No. Not at all. Because it’s like, what are their motives of putting these certain news stories out? Again, it’s to—it’s like a whole lot of division between a whole lot of people, between Black people, white people between Black people, and the police. I think the media within the last five years have been the number one cause for so much division in our country today.”  

Others felt that local news was intentionally trying to instill fear in society. As Jamal noted, “The first 15 minutes of the news is like, this house burned down. These kids are. . .it’s just violence.  It’s just like, it’s sad. Like, the first 15 minutes of the news is sad. It just makes you want to hold a tissue to your eyes and just cry.

While a few Germantown residents spoke of recent political events as amplifying a feeling of distrust in the media, most emphasized that this is not a new problem. Referencing questionable coverage over the years, from the Million Man March to Rodney King, to disparities in framing drug epidemics, Steve shared a common view when he said, “I think my faith in the media had been shattered so long ago.”
 

Montgomery County: A Suburban News Desert

It’s only about five miles from Germantown to the border of Montgomery County, but because of its sprawling shape, you can drive 30 miles and still be within the county.  

Like many suburban communities across the US, the news landscape of Montgomery County has shifted rapidly in the twenty-first century. Established news organizations have cut back on reporting resources, while new forms of digitally mediated news sharing have emerged. According to Bill Ross, executive director of the NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia, the two daily papers serving Montgomery County—Norristown’s The Times Herald and Pottstown’s The Mercury—have slashed over 60 percent of their staff in the past six years and put buildings and real estate up for sale. This all happened since the newspapers came under new ownership by Digital First Media.  

“I think all the local papers are dogs now,” observed John, a resident of the Montgomery County town of Collegeville. He explained that the consolidation of ownership across local papers has created a troubling situation, saying, “Go to each of them, and go into the search and put in ‘Collegeville,’ and you’ll get the exact same articles because there are just a handful of articles, and there are fewer people writing, fewer people going out and investigating.”

Another resident, Anne, talked about deteriorating coverage in the local news sources more generally:

“So, you don’t get that community kind of news that you once did that was important in communities. So. . .you know, it’s a quick story on what’s happening in the farmer’s market or you look at it for the obituaries to see if somebody you know is. . .but I mean, they’re just so thin and really not written well either. There’s not the resources to support those.”

In addition to raising concerns about an absence of coverage, some Montgomery County residents took issue with the tone and focus of local news. A number of residents said they wanted more positive coverage of community efforts to help one another and respond to problems such as poverty and opioids. Yet, there was also a recognition that suburban local reporting may be undermining its own ability to be of real service to the community by seeking to avoid controversy and turning to fluff coverage.

As Deborah described it, the commercial local news sources seem to:

“. . .think that people want to get happy news or that the paper doesn’t want to get. . .identified as being biased because they actually take the time to investigate something.  So, it seems like they don’t do some of the digging that they could do on some of the real issues that are going on.”

While residents expressed concerns about recent declines in the resources devoted to reporting in their areas, we also encountered signs that several participants had internalized a limited set of local news values typified by local television news. For them, the very idea of local news was associated with crime and spectacular accidents.

As Jessica put it, “I don’t want to say we’re boring, but I don’t think we have a lot going on and being away from Philadelphia I think there’s a lot more going on in Philadelphia.” Some even felt suburban communities were lucky not to be of interest to reporters. For instance, Barb noted, “Normally, I never hear of anything going on around here. Which is nice, you know. There’s nothing negative.”

This idea that no news equates to good news raises concerns given that researchers have found a relationship between decreased local coverage and declining political engagement. News media does not merely relay information, it offers the potential to spark interest in civic life and help to expand the democratic imagination. An absence of constructive coverage about local issues has consequences beyond a fall in local newspaper subscriptions.

Suburban Montgomery County in greater Philadelphia.


Polarization from the dinner table to the salon

More so than our focus group participants from Germantown, Montgomery County residents reflected on how recent political polarization at the national level had complicated their relationship with the news media and with each other (for a discussion of polarization at the local level in a rural, small-town context, see our previous Tow research here). While researchers debate the extent to which US citizens’ news habits are transforming into echo chambers, the participants we spoke with clearly see their own trust in news organizations affected by intensifying partisan divides.

Although Montgomery County as a whole has leaned Democratic in the last several presidential elections, it is politically divided, crisscrossed by several Republican-controlled Congressional districts—part of the intricate tapestry of Pennsylvania’s electoral gerrymandering.

During the 2016 election, one could drive along Montgomery County highways and see yards with Trump signs—some giant, suspended by homemade frames—right next to neighbors with signs supporting Clinton. Along traffic medians, thickets of signs cropped up supporting an even greater range of candidates, from Jill Stein, to Gary Johnson, to Evan McMullan. Such an environment may make this community particularly sensitive to what political scientists call affective polarization, a well-documented phenomenon in which political divides play out sharply, more as escalating feelings of animosity among partisans than as differences in policy preferences.  

Democrats and Republicans come into daily contact with each other in Montgomery County’s mixed workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and families. Many residents spoke forcefully of strained or severed friendships, and turmoil within families due to political differences during the 2016 elections. One resident mentioned family gatherings where certain members would simply “get up and leave” during discussions of politics.

For others, these tensions have led to avoiding political conversation and even political media in shared spaces. John, a Democratic voter from Collegeville, told us about how the 2016 election affected relationships with his increasingly conservative son:

“For years NPR has been on while we’re having dinner. You know what I mean? It’s been on while I’m packing his lunch, and he’s heard plenty of it. Then, the last year and a half, he’s gotten up and turned it off. That’s enough of that, you know. Sometimes just a general conversation that we would’ve had and do have at the dinner table as family, which includes politics, he just puts up this wall of ‘don’t need this opinion’ and ‘you’re all wrong.’ ”

Partisan divides also affect interactions in public spaces that were ordinarily communication hotspots. A resident told us that the 2016 election brought strife to her sister’s salon, which had generally been a place for customers to share stories and friendly banter. She said that during the election:

“My sister was not political at all, and she’d call me some days crying about things that were happening in the salon. Like, I’m in the back room, can you believe I’m crying about this. So, now it’s, in those spaces, it’s kind of, I find, a lot of people have agreed not to discuss certain topics.”

For many, social media has become an especially fraught battlefield, fostering hostile interactions where partisan difference frequently leads to explosive clashes. Rick compared political discussion on Facebook to the first-person-shooter videogame Call of Duty, suggesting that the medium led people to engage in online arguments like a form of combat without real consequences.

During a focus group, Anne described politics on social media as “vicious,” and Sarah chimed in, “I literally had multiple friends on Facebook say, ‘if you voted for this, da, da, da, da, da. . .unfriend me now.’ ”

The backdrop of intensified, emotional polarization has placed different types of pressures on residents’ relationships with news organizations—in ways that are affected by their own partisan identities. Residents across party lines felt they had to scrutinize news sources more closely in the wake of accusations about “fake news” and more complaints of bias.

Many residents who identified themselves as Democrats or unaffiliated looked to find sources that adhered most closely to traditional standards of professional journalism. Several members of a focus group with Democrats and independents talked about looking to research studies to figure out which sources were covering the election with the least bias. With others nodding in sympathy, one participant told us about a study by the Pew Research Center that has been circulating among her Facebook friends:

“I know that influenced me directly as to which outlets that I then started to watch and I focused on that which was in the center, so it was Reuters, it was NPR, it was The New York Times and Washington Post. . .and I just started focusing on those more so than anything else.

While Democrats and independents frequently spoke of trying to find sources certified by institutions representing the traditions of professional journalism, conservative participants described how their own trust in these institutions had become strained. In our conversations, the lack of trust that conservatives expressed in “mainstream” news outlets stemmed less from instances of journalistic error and centered more on the tone of coverage.

It is well known that conservative activists and media figures have long argued that professional journalists are overwhelmingly liberal and approach the news with liberal bias. But what we observed is that Montgomery County liberals and conservatives tended to put an emphasis on different types of concerns regarding bias and trustworthiness.

Both expressed worries about whether news organizations might spread inaccurate facts, but liberals focused more on factual accuracy as the key to trust. Meanwhile, the type of bias that most concerned conservatives revolved around a matter of whether they treated conservatives respectfully or dismissively. Some talked about their own contact with perceived liberal media as visceral experiences in which they felt conservatives were being slighted and insulted.

In a focus group with four residents who identified themselves as conservatives or Republicans, one of the most resonate critiques of major media centered on the intonations and body language with which media figures reacted to conservatives. One woman demanded of news anchors, “Don’t talk about Trump and roll your eyes.” The others chimed in with support.
 

Coping with Mistrust

The varied factors shaping how residents of Germantown and Montgomery County assessed the trustworthiness of media also affected how residents navigated it and imagined possible alternative relationships with media.

Verification

While a lack of confidence in local news was more about a perceived absence of news in Montgomery County, and a sense of biased or stigmatized coverage in Germantown, residents from both communities shared sentiments of distrust toward national outlets (including toward outlets they read or watched). To cope with their lack of trust, many shared tactics they used to fact-check and verify information, looking at multiple news sources and using search engines (particularly Google). Participants on all sides of the political spectrum in both Germantown and Montgomery County mentioned a practice of checking international sources as a way to verify information and gain what they perceived as a less “biased” perspective. Several spoke of going “across the pond electronically” particularly to UK sites like the BBC.

Among Montgomery County Republicans and independents, several, including Sarah, spoke of seeking out content that they saw as less produced and edited: “actual information, not from a news source, like actual information to make my decisions.” Chad similarly voiced his preference for C-SPAN-style Congressional hearings that he said allowed him to “formulate my own opinion on this versus seeing a cut and then going to somebody telling me what I should think.” He said he worried that editing manipulated facts—giving the example of a Simpsons episode where Homer is accused of sexual harassment after a selective camera angle distorts his efforts to procure a gummy candy.

Among Germantown participants, there was a greater emphasis on the value of verifying information through trusted interpersonal sources and community groups. As Ayanna explained:

“I trust my community groups. Like if they’re talking about something that’s happening, like, oh, the newspapers aren’t reporting about the water issue in Philadelphia schools. I know that they’ve already started investigating it, they talked to an organizer who’s already tested the water. And so, for me, I trust them. When they tell me something I know it’s legit, that they didn’t just make it up.”


Alternative social sources

In both Germantown and Montgomery County, residents mentioned getting news from a variety of neighborhood Facebook groups. In Germantown, this took the form of two closed groups: Living in Germantown and Changing Germantown. Several participants mentioned belonging to both groups, which circulate information on range of issues, from missing cats, to after-school programs, to discussions of concerns around development and gentrification.

In Montgomery County, several residents said they sought local news through alternative online sources such as Patch.com sites, or neighborhood or school-related Facebook groups.

At times these groups were referenced as key sources of local information:

“My neighborhood Facebook group there is actually one person who has become almost a reporter to the neighborhood. She goes to all the township meetings, the school board meetings, reports back her findings and I think it’s been really interesting to see how that group has changed from kind of like a mommy-and-me kind of group to more social issues.”

Several Montgomery County participants mentioned that they got a considerable amount of news through word of mouth, or from unofficial “networks of mothers.” Emily explained that she especially appreciated her local Facebook group, as she noticed her access to information change with her stage in life: “Not having a child in the school system anymore you feel like you get a little detached and you don’t know what the township is planning as far as building new schools and taxes.”

In Germantown, a participant said she often turned to social media over professional media because “with social media you don’t necessarily have to rely on the news stories to report those.” She said she did this both to get her news and to circulate news about the community she wanted to share.

But for some residents, there was a sense that all news required critical reading to decipher messages between the lines. Germantown resident Angela explained that because she saw most news outlets as sensational, it required her to use critical interpretations:

“I kind of look at it like food. Like, I feel like if I had McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s. . .it’s all the same thing, just different people’s interpretation. So, I spend a lot more time filtering it for the interpretation, like what does this actually mean in the big picture of things than really actually taking it in as something. So yeah. A lot of it is fluff to me and just like, what does that mean? What does this story actually mean in the big picture of the world or my personal life? So other than that, it’s all entertainment.

To an extent, this meant all news felt devalued for Angela. In media literacy terms, she had nowhere to “spend her trust.”

Disengagement and distraction

Many spoke of cycling between efforts to verify the news and trying to disengage from news they deemed as negative or untrustworthy (for more discussion of verification practices, particularly involving social media, see this previous Tow report). For example, Becky, a Republican Montgomery County resident, explained how following the 2016 election she reduced her Facebook use after seeing stories she did not trust:

“You’d see things. . .then you found out now that some of it was planted and things. So, now I don’t trust anything from a national level really on any of the social media. It just disgusts me and aggravates me when I see some of the Twitter things. So, I can’t listen to it. It makes me too angry.”

While Becky needed a break due to a feeling of distrust and frustration, many others spoke of having to detox from the negativity of news. As one Germantown resident explained, news “can take you from a happy place to a sad place instantly by reading it. I tend to filter that for myself and limit the amount that I take that in weekly.”

A couple Germantown residents mentioned they had taken a break from the news around the time of intensive Roy Moore allegations. Jill explained she felt “burned out”: “I’ve been sort of like, on and off with news, like sometimes there will be a few weeks where I’m constantly on Twitter, listening to the radio, like going to newspaper websites, and then other weeks where I’m just completely defeated and like I need a break.”

Julie in Montgomery County expressed a similar desire to disengage:

“With all that’s going on in the world, sometimes I just want to be in a bubble and not worry about, you know, all these other things.  I know that sounds naïve and it sounds like I’m not one to be aware of my surroundings, but sometimes, you know, no news is good news.”

Several spoke of news breaks as a form of self-protection. “I also need to think about, like, my emotional intake,” a Germantown resident explained regarding why she limited her use of television. “It affects my psyche.” She said she preferred social media channels to what she saw as sensational and violent television—as she felt better able to curate what she exposed herself to. 

In Montgomery County, several participants spoke of avoiding local and national network news and seeking distraction from sources like The Today Show, as it gave them “a mixture of something happy”: “I want to know what’s going on, but I also want to know that Madonna got, is getting a divorce. Like, I want to know a good mixture of like, just, you know, cheesy news that really probably doesn’t matter mixed with the real news.”

A few participants mentioned that while they felt the need to take breaks from national news, particularly following the 2016 election, they were actually trying to seek out more local news.
 

Imagining Healthier Relationships with Local Media


A call for more constructive local coverage

While many participants spoke of disengaging with news due to its negativity, a number suggested they would like to engage more, were the news to take a more constructive orientation.

In Germantown, a number of residents provided specific examples of the kinds of stories they would like covered further, such as stories of educational success, local mural projects, local residents resolving social problems, efforts to support children in foster care, and the revitalization of old buildings. Participants said they wanted to see more stories about things that would improve their daily lives, including more social events, workshops, and community issues. As Raheem explained:

Raheem: I think they’re doing local coverage, but it’s like, I think they don’t know what need to be covered.

Facilitator: What do you think needs to be covered more so?

Raheem: Like if there’s something positive in the community. . .You need to talk about that, and you need to talk about more positive things and not if it’s going to be a shooting in the community. Have a series on like, how we can stop shooting? They just like to show stuff and don’t show no solutions.

Several spoke of giving organizations the opportunity to “talk about the things that they’re doing which would motivate, stimulate, and activate people to become a part of those things.”

In Montgomery County, many participants also suggested that if they needed to see the negative stories there should at least be a constructive angle. Julie explained the kind of coverage she wanted to see after a tragic local home fire:

“I want to see how are we reaching out as a community to help this poor family who has lost two children, you know what I mean? How are we helping these people come back from such a tragedy, because it does take a community to raise families and to make productive citizens of society, you know.”

In a focus group, several participants nodded when Anne suggested they would welcome news that tackled substantive issues, if it did so from a solutions-orientation:

“Let’s be strategic in how we, you know, report issues. Not just, you know, again, whatever the problem is and sensationalize it and cause fear, but you know, let’s provide the facts so then who is going to be looking at a solution, and what is that? What are potential solutions to this as well?”

Julie shared a similar sentiment: “You know what would be nice, is if they’re like, how can we help? Like, ideas. We can help in this way, you know, or like, instead of saying, if you want to just donate here, what else can we do?”

Visions of trust

When invited to imagine what a relationship of trust with the media would look like, a few participants, particularly in Germantown, struggled to conceive of such a possibility. But many did express that news had the potential to encourage civic participation. Germantown resident Ayanna spoke of news that had “more equity in coverage and representation of communities.” She detailed her vision:

“A healthy relationship to me would mean shared power, meaning that funders wouldn’t rule the types of things that got covered. It would be based on the things that were important to the local community and how it impacted their lives so people would see the way national news impacts local news and then impacts their lives. And I would ask for more analysis of the news but I would ask it from people, from anchors or journalists who are using researchers and community members to help them analyze it as opposed to them coming up with what they think the facts mean.”

Numerous participants called on media to engage with community members in the making of news, to narrow the gap between journalists and publics through more participatory media.

A few participants offered ideas for these participatory local news efforts. In Montgomery County, Chad suggested that local television networks could collaborate to work with local schools to report on communities in constructive ways—not about crime or violence, but about new developments or events.

Julie, a Republican-leaning resident, encouraged journalists to do more to build relationships with communities: “If you really want to know what’s going on in our community then get out there, be a part of it, see what’s going on.” She cautioned reporters not to simply come out “with a microphone in your hands.” Rather, she suggested they take an approach more like the focus group we ran:

“If we’re going to have these conversations, then let’s put it in a controlled environment where we can talk about it and actually get results. I don’t want to see violence. I don’t want to see people hurt. Like, let’s get to the root of the problem in a civil manner, not with aggression, you know. And I think that’s important, that people need to feel safe in their conversations.”


News as mobilizer

For some participants, their ideal relationship with local news involved the possibility of news as a mobilizer. Celeste reflected on how certain news narratives sparked participation and protest, such as the murder of Trayvon Martin. She wanted news about neighborhood issues to accomplish the same:  

“You’ve got to have that same patience, that same passion for the local things that’s going on in your community. Or we’re going to see a story about Trayvon Martin and everybody’s ready to come together, they’re ready to fight these people. But when you hear about the school system going down and being affected by the taxes and stuff, it’s like people are just not as passionate.”

While Celeste lay responsibility with community members, news media is central to constructing readily accessible narratives of political life. If participants in Germantown struggle to see what role they can play in improving the school system, or Montgomery County residents suggest that the problems the news covers are far away in the urban center of Philadelphia, this is a sign that the media is not activating narratives that might allow residents to imagine more constructive and inclusive alternatives.

Beyond listening: Inching toward deep engagement

Discussions around engaged journalism as a practice of listening only gets us so far. The limits of the professional model of journalism cannot be corrected with a simple populism. In fact, naïve attempts to reorient journalism to meet popular interest has been tried time and again and may contribute to the problem.

By the late 1970s, many news executives and managers worrying about declining circulation or pushing for higher ratings turned to market research and embraced a “give the audience what they want” philosophy. This led to hundreds of focus groups and readership surveys, the “McPaper” revolution of USA Today, and a surge of TV news consultants. The operating assumption of this “consumer-driven” approach was that individual audience members had set interests and tastes. So it was believed that news organizations could simple conduct the research and surveys, find out what people wanted, and serve it to them.  

What such an approach does not take into account is that relationships between a public’s interests in news depends, in part, on the type of civic culture promoted by its media environment. Journalism driven by market research largely fails to consider the role news organizations may need to play in mobilizing popular interest in news, facilitating opportunities for meaningful participation in democratic life, and sparking new enthusiasm for such engagement.

To strengthen storytelling networks, media has to play a role as mobilizer—not simply asking audiences what they want as consumers, but working with publics to facilitate and imagine new narratives of what is possible.
 

Recommendations

Based on our discussions with residents of Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood and suburban Montgomery County, we offer the following recommendations for local media and supporters of local media interested in forging healthier relationships with communities:

  • While we deliberately did not use the words “solutions journalism” in our discussions with residents, this concept of covering responses to social problems was a running theme that emerged in conversations with participants across geographic and ideological communities. Repeatedly, participants expressed dismay with overwhelmingly negative local news coverage and a desire for more constructive and problem-solving oriented coverage. Local media outlets would do well to consider how their news agenda could offer a greater balance of information through more solutions-oriented reporting.
  • When discussing their vision for a more trusted media, many residents shared ideas for more participatory media production where community members were involved in the process of developing community stories. While residents referenced using social media like local Facebook pages as alternative ways of sourcing community information, they expressed a desire for professional journalism operations to engage more with residents. Ideas ranged from community reporters, to collaborations with schools, but all addressed the challenge of narrowing the distance between professional news producers and publics.
  • Beyond asking residents what they would like media to cover, we believe news organizations and their supporters need to pursue deep engagement processes where news outlets play a role as a mobilizer of dialogue on community issues. Around the US there are currently a number of initiatives centered on community forums and dialogue, such as the work conducted by News Voices, the Jefferson Center, and City Bureau. We hope to see more initiatives like these share research, best practices, and lessons learned, to understand how news outlets may collaboratively engage with other community stakeholders to develop and introduce new narratives of civic possibility into local storytelling networks.

We recognize that these recommendations cannot be addressed without simultaneously grappling with the imperatives of seeking financial sustainability for local news. While it’s beyond the scope of this study to speculate on the relationship between engaged journalism practices and local news business models, a number of other recent studies have begun to do so, particularly looking at engagement and models of membership.

A study from a sister research project in rural Kentucky recently looked at whether engaged journalism practices affected subscriptions at a hyperlocal with mixed results—though interestingly, the most promising outcomes came from its most deeply engaged work, which involved developing a community contributors program and holding face-to-face dialogues. Yet, along with glimmers of hope, we must acknowledge signs of deeply embedded structural inequalities. The digital-era news economy—increasingly relying upon user subscriptions and memberships, and targeted advertising seeking particular demographics—tilts incentives toward news outlets serving affluent users suspected to already be highly engaged news consumers.

Our next step will be to host a series of workshops in the Philadelphia metro area to connect participants in our study with local and regional media and other community stakeholders. We see this as testing a process model we previously piloted in Kentucky, where contributors to local storytelling networks are brought together for participatory brainstorming.

The goal is to develop ideas for projects that may strengthen the local storytelling network—addressing challenges raised in this research, and creating opportunities to imagine healthier relationships between media and communities. We look forward to sharing the ideas that grow out of these discussions, and to exploring how they might be piloted in the Philadelphia region, and how the process may benefit communities elsewhere.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Andrea Wenzel, Anthony Nadler, Melissa Valle, and Marc Lamont Hill are fellows at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Andrea Wenzel is an assistant professor at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication. Anthony Nadler is an assistant professor of Media and Communication Studies at Ursinus College. Melissa M. Valle is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology and the Department of African American & African Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. Marc Lamont Hill is the Steve Charles Professor of Media, Cities, and Solutions at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication. Thanks to Kamika Bennett of Rutgers University-Newark for research assistance.