Thursday, December 30, 2010

How Can Journalism Regain Public Trust?

The following presentation was made at the MediaTenor Agenda-Setting Conference in Rappersvil, Switzerland in October 2010.

Good morning! I’m Alisa Miller, President and CEO of PRI, Public Radio International. PRI is best known as a creator and distributor of radio content in the United States.

But we are really an organization that creates news and storytelling content to help people successfully navigate our interconnected world. We recognize that it is imperative that people understand the rich diversity of our world in order to create a vibrant global society. Since 1983, we have provided different perspectives to ensure that our listeners had context for interpreting the news and making decisions. We are a leading provider of global news in broadcasting in the USA.

We work in close partnership with the BBC World Service, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and 19 other US-based production partners. Our content is heard by 13 million people each week on over 880 public radio stations in the US, on Radio One in Canada, and right here on World Radio Switzerland. If you aren’t in the US, Canada or Switzerland, you can stream our content at pri dot org, download our podcasts or listen through our iPhone app.

We all know that fair, quality journalism feeds people’s ability to make good choices in their lives.

It lays the groundwork for action and potential for change.

In our 27 year history, PRI has experienced a number of challenges and opportunities as media consumption changed, audiences’ needs evolved and new technologies were introduced. And now, like all of you, we are in an extraordinary environment that, every day, encourages us to think about how we can better serve audiences. Now, I’d like to talk about the environment in which we work, why journalism is more important than ever, and ways in which we can remain relevant as the world changes.

As we all know, today’s media world can be discouraging. The unprecedented global recession applies budget pressures that have resulted in many for-profit media organizations, especially print publications, to fail; even organizations as prominent and established as the BBC are looking for new ways to do more with less. We also see an erosion of trust in the news media overall.

For the fourth straight year, the majority of Americans say they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. The 57% who now say this is a record high by one percentage point.[1]

On top of economic challenges, our consumers’ attitudes and expectations are changing. News users over 35 expect media to deliver the news from a position of authority; younger news users question that level of authority. According to a global survey of 18-35 year olds by the AP [2], and research by Christopher Sopher and his blog "Younger Thinking." cited by the Neiman Journalism lab at Harvard, younger news consumers want context for what is happening but may not see a consistent connection between regularly “getting the news” and staying informed about the issues that interest them.[3]

Advances in technology present another challenge: even as our traditional media is under pressure, we have to find a way to participate in all sorts of new distribution mechanisms: web-sites, podcasts, iPhones, iPads, mobile… it seems there is a new platform launched almost every day.

These challenges are also the silver lining: our audiences DO want to know what is going on in the world around them. They are hungry for news. They want to be ACTIVE news users, and they have to technology to do so. What a great opportunity!

First, let’s look at the demand for journalism:

A recent Pew report shows that Americans follow news most of the time. In fact, the demand for news according to a recent Pew study is at least in the U-S is the highest it has been in the last Decade [5].

And finally, there is a growing contingent such as bloggers which is eager to create reports or POV content.

A recent report in the Wall Street Journal says more Americans are now making their primary income from posting blogs online than those who work as firefighters or computer programmers.

They have the ability to spread the word or be eye-witnesses to the news that is happening in their communities as we could see during the Iranian Elections and the Haiti Disaster.

And 30-somethings around the world are consuming media 24.7. This graphic shows a day in the life in terms of the 30-something demo; It tells us when they want what, and why. You can see they use all kinds of media throughout the day to satisfy specific and different needs that change. The user moves from wanting information to building understanding. Note how the evenings provide a unique opportunity for multi-platform consumption – at the same time.

The way users consume news is changing, but the desire to be informed and to know what is happening in the world is not going away.

As a group, the next generation is more diverse and savvy technologically; their needs and demands as news consumers differ from previous generations.[6]

These listeners expect news on-demand, as well as the option to discuss or even shape the content of the news itself. They have preferences to share and comment and engage at higher percentages.[7]

Technology makes it easier for people to contribute to and consume news content. As users move from dial-up internet access (typical in America up until the beginning of this century) to broadband connections to integrated networked media, the content we create will be more and more accessible. Our media will be more driven by handheld devices and wireless networks. The challenge and the opportunity for our industry will be to figure out how to use this networked world to advance public service.

This strong demand for news is encouraging, for it means that in the face of economic stress, people value journalism. Unfortunately, in the face of this demand, journalism is not meeting our users’ expectations. For example, US commercial television networks have cut the number of foreign bureaus by over 50%.

The result, aside from one-person mini ABC bureaus in Nairobi, New Delhi, Rio, and Mumbai there are no network bureaus left in all of Africa, India or South America — places that are home to more than 2 billion people.

And with respect to the web – that vehicle that the younger demographic relies on – the most popular news sites don’t do much better. Pew and the Columbia Journalism School analyzed 14,000 stories that appeared on Google News’ front page in one day. These stories were essentially covering the same 24 news events, creating merely an echo chamber which implies abundance but does not deliver. [8]

Similarly, a study featured in EContent showed that much of global news available from U.S. news creators is recycled stories from the wire services and presented without a U.S. context

Finally, a number of topics that really matter when it comes to how our society works and functions – education, science, the environment, race & ethnicity, women & children – often represent less than 5% of the total news output combined.

This shrinking supply of comprehensive news journalism imperils our society, and our inability to meet audiences needs inhibit the level of trust between us. On a daily basis, we see an increase in the polarization of where people go for news, perhaps indicating a decreased desire to deeply understand our fellow citizens.

In the U-S, as Pew recently found, ideology continues to be closely associated with people’s choice of certain news sources. Eight-in-ten Americans (80%) who regularly listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch Sean Hannity are conservative – roughly twice the national average of 36%. And at the other end of the spectrum, the New York Times, Keith Olbermann, the Daily Show, the Colbert Report and Rachel Maddow have regular audiences that include nearly twice the proportion of liberals than in the public.[9]

Many recognize this increasing polarization as a problem, and are working at an individual or organizational level to further understanding and compassion. As journalists, we have the ability, because of our reach and our historic role in society, to address this problem, by reaching out and engaging people across the spectrum.

So, this is the crossroad which offers incredible opportunity for success: Demand is great, but media organizations are struggling to meet that demand. The increasing intolerance for different points of view requires action. Technology offers new ways to reach more people and encourage understanding. How do we take advantage of this convergence? I’d like to share some ideas for how journalism can succeed in this new landscape.

First, we must re-establish trust with our existing audiences, and build it with new audiences by listening more and talking less.

At the heart of journalism’s ability to give audiences the information they need to make informed choices about their societies is a level of trust. Unfortunately, this trust is not as strong as it has previously been, in part because of failures in journalism as mentioned above, and because of changing audience expectations. We have the ability to rebuild this trust by reaching out to better understand our audiences and make them a participant in our end product.

At PRI, we have been turning outward to the communities we serve to learn more about the topics they deem relevant, and to understand more about their needs. This customer focus led us to create content that has attracted new audiences and expanded our reach. For example, in the early ‘90’s, PRI did research and found that Americans were hungry for international news, but the only international news they could find was lacking: it didn’t connect the dots between what happened abroad and what was happening in their communities. So PRI created, in partnership with the BBC World Service and WGBH Radio Boston, “PRI’s The World,” broadcasting’s only daily international news program that helps Americans understand how they affect and are affected by global events. “The World” is now heard by over 2.6 million people each week.

More recently, four years ago we conducted research among younger and ethnically diverse populations to learn why they didn’t consume public radio’s news content. They told us that the style was too formal, and that it was too academic. They wanted to know about the economy, the war, immigration policy and all the other news we typically cover, but they wanted it presented in a way that let them to connect to the story by offering their perspective. Once again, we responded, and created a morning drive news program called The Takeaway. The Takeaway uses broadcast, a web-site and social media (including Facebook, Twitter and mobile texting) to get listener feedback on the news reported by our journalists, and creating a conversation about the news of the day that goes far beyond the broadcast. This approach is attracting new audiences – younger and more ethnically diverse – to the program, and spurring the kind of response that good journalism is known to do. We are also seeing other in the industry respond in the last six months, with their own research, that confirms our findings from four years ago and shows that our efforts have catalyzed others. [10]

Based on what we’re learning from The Takeaway, and as a result of new technologies that allow citizens to contribute to content creation, PRI is looking at ways of incorporating eye-witness accounts or crowd sourced fact finding and aggregation from listeners into our content. NOT as a replacement for the reporting from journalists, but as a new way to add context and relevance.

By responding to our consumers’ interests and concerns, we are beginning to re-establish trust. They recognize that we want to serve their needs for in-depth news reporting and that we want their perspectives to flesh out our reporting. As a result, they are more engaged with us, more active and consuming more of our content. We are more relevant to, and more trusted by, our audience.

We also need to deliver a more complete picture of the news that includes leveraging a news ecosystem that is far larger than our respective newsrooms.

As we know, resources to support the creation of journalism are under significant stress. One way to address these constraints AND improve the quality of our reporting is by reaching out to a diversity of contributors and working with other media organizations that bring a different perspective. For PRI – a national organization – that means looking to neighborhood, local and regional media organizations. By collaborating with each of them, we have access to more capacity and are able to show the broader picture of any community. And our local partners, at their best will also tap into national and international coverage from providers and help to provide LOCAL CONTEXT to these larger stories. We also will actively partner with peer organizations at a national and global level as we have proven that combined resources and best thinking leads to the best product -- almost every time.

We also need to challenge ourselves not to just go to the extremes in perspectives to tell the story from the left and/or right. This often leaves many trying to figure out what and who is the middle, which is another place where the facts and solutions could lie. This is counter culture to our coverage, particularly of policy.

We also need to be serious about embracing civic reporting as part of our quiver to report and provide context of the news. People who are in our audience can and should be engaged to help us create our product, more than just supplement it. This will foster trust and will allow us to focus our efforts on work that we alone can do. Where are the spaces where we can pursue unmet content needs and let others do the rest. We need to be asking ourselves these questions.

And we need to be providing tools that give people the opportunity to use the news and apply it to their lives. This will be the next wave providing relevance and breaking new ground in knowledge.

And we need to harness the power of both actual and virtual communities to connect people at a personal level to the news, new ideas and each other, wherever they may be. Through the power of code and algorithms and user engagement, we need to create spaces for people to personally find relevance and connect with each other around content.

For example do we even consider adjusting our approach and tone to new places, so as institutions, become members of those communities. For example, do you look at YouTube as a distribution outlet or a community in which your institution is a member, bringing your unique craft and perspectives. This difference how we see ourselves could dramatically change how people connect with your organization as a purveyor of knowledge and story telling.

Or do we actively provide tools that give people the ability to find personal relevance of stories for their lives? Is this an integrated part of our editorial process today? It needs to be.

As journalists, we provide information and context to help citizens make informed choices. Today, demand for our reporting is great… And so is the desire to identify issues of importance and engage with and contribute to traditional reporting. By listening to our audiences, we can re-build the trust needed to inform and support robust conversations about our world. This is our duty, and our opportunity. Let’s not fail to meet it.

Thank you.


[1] Distrust in US Media Edges Up to Record High, Gallop, September 2010.



[4] Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources", Pew Center for the People and the Press, page 38 in the PDF.

[5] Pew Research Center June 8-28, 2010

[6] Audiences (18-34 year olds) increasingly rely on the Internet as a primary news source (“Abandoning The News,” Carnegie Reporter, Spring 2005).

[7] "Revealing the Digital News Experience -- For Young and Old". Nieman Lab, Harvard.

[8] The State of News Media 2009. Online content analysis.

[9]  "Americans Spending More Time Following the News- Ideological News Sources: Who Watches and Why", September 2010. Pew Center for People and the Press.

[10] "Study sees growth if NPR loosens up, sounds less elite." Published in Current, September 20, 2010.

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