Jul 21, 2023

How to actually win back trust in news.

How to actually win back trust in news.
Photo by Roman Kraft / Unsplash

Media is in crisis. What can we do?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

Are you new here? Get free emails to your inbox daily. Would you rather listen? You can find our podcast here

Earlier this month, Gallup released a new survey with a jarring piece of information: Americans’ confidence in newspapers and television news has plummeted to an all-time low.

In the survey, Gallup asked the following: "Now I am going to read you a list of institutions in American society. Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in each one — a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little." When they said "newspapers," just 16% of Americans said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence. When they said "television news," the number dropped to 11%.

"The media" is a notoriously squishy thing to define, and I have regularly pleaded with folks for more specificity when they describe anything related to the press. But the upshot here is pretty simple: Your average American has very low confidence in what most news outlets report.

If you try hard enough, you could frame this as a positive. Perhaps our society was due for a dose of some healthy skepticism. But surveys like this should be largely troubling. In a democratic country like ours, where citizens have the power to shape government, it's important to be well informed. And if five out of every six of us don’t trust the premier sources of information we use to stay informed — newspapers and television news — then not only does it make us less able to select our representatives, but we get a whole cascade of other problems.

For the last four years, I've been building Tangle in hopes of solving media mistrust. My goal when I started this project was to build a news outlet that was consumed and trusted by a wide-ranging audience that included diehard Trump voters, progressive Democrats, and everyone in between. I'm thrilled to be able to say that we've done that — and are working to continue to do so.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is "don't talk about it, be about it." But today, at the risk of being a little self-absorbed, I'd like to talk about it: How we've built trust at Tangle, and how I think other media outlets could do the same.

Here are five simple things I think every media outlet should think more about:

1) Balance

Last week, Republicans in the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act, an $886 billion military spending bill. We covered it yesterday.

Here is how The New York Times started their straight news story on the passage of the bill (emphasis mine):

Republicans on Friday rammed through the House a deeply partisan defense bill that would limit abortion access, transgender care and diversity training for military personnel, setting up a showdown with the Senate. The coming fight could imperil the crucial annual measure to provide a pay raise for troops, set defense policy to counter U.S. adversaries and sustain Pentagon programs at a time of rising threats.

The House passed the measure on a vote of 219 to 210 with nearly unanimous Republican support, a significant victory for the far-right faction that forced a reluctant Speaker Kevin McCarthy to open the bill to an array of social policy prescriptions by threatening to block it if they did not get their way. But the move left the fate of the measure deeply in doubt, advancing a bill that has little chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate and raising questions about whether a compromise can be reached that could be enacted into law this fall.

Here is how The Wall Street Journal covered it in the first few paragraphs of its straight news story:

The Republican-controlled House narrowly passed a $886 billion defense-policy bill loaded with measures restricting abortion access, transgender healthcare and diversity efforts in the military, as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy kept his party largely united amid strong Democratic opposition.

The vote was 219-210, with just four Republicans and four Democrats crossing party lines. The Senate is working to pass its own version, and then lawmakers will work behind closed doors to come up with a compromise that must clear both chambers before heading to President Biden’s desk for his signature.

The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2024 would authorize a 5.2% pay raise for troops and funding for new barracks, combat ships and drones, create a Space National Guard, and establish a new Special Inspector General for Ukraine Security Assistance to oversee audits of all U.S. aid provided to Ukraine.

It's not hard to spot the differences. In The New York Times, it’s a rammed through, deeply partisan bill that involves rising threats and the far-right. In The Wall Street Journal, it’s a narrowly passed bill involving largely united Republicans and Democratic opposition that raises pay for troops and establishes new funding. One version of this story evokes division, fear, and doubt. The other evokes unity, progress, and creation.

And it's not just the opening paragraphs, either. It's the entire story. In the next paragraphs, each paper uses space to explain what Republicans are doing. From The New York Times:

Some Republicans, particularly those in competitive districts, could also pay a political price for embracing legislation that would restrict the rights of women and transgender people and downplay problems of racism in the military. Democrats were already attacking them for having done so, highlighting the measure as a prime example of their argument that the Republican Party is extreme and out of step with the values of mainstream voters.

Here's The Wall Street Journal:

The vote marked a victory for the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, whose members hailed it as their latest success in shifting the House rightward. The passage also notched a win for McCarthy, who held his rowdy conference together by appeasing conservatives and striking side deals with individual lawmakers, an approach that will be tested again later this year when the NDAA is finalized.

Republican leaders said the adoption of the GOP amendments on polarizing issues, many of them championed by members of the Freedom Caucus, would keep the military focused on protecting the country rather than what they see as progressive social-policy distractions.

To recap: In The New York Times, Republicans are extreme, out of step with the values of mainstream voters, restricting the rights of women and transgender people, and downplaying racism. In The Wall Street Journal, the amendments come from the hard-line wing, the bill’s passage is a victory, the latest success, a conference together, the military is focused, protecting the country, and fighting progressive social policy distractions.

These are not opinion pieces. These are two news articles meant to inform readers. And I didn’t just pick these two to make a point — I just chose the most recent story we covered in Tangle. I’ve done this exercise before, and the results are always consistent. Unfortunately, it appears this problem might be getting worse.

If media outlets want to win back the trust of Americans, the first thing they need to do is look inward. They need to conduct exercises like this and think about whether their coverage really exists as a reporter expounding their own worldviews to the audience. They must find ways to identify bias and to value balance in their reporting.

Are they framing issues in neutral terms, or in the ways their preferred politicians want them framed? Are they offering framing that provides a balanced panoramic view of the news, with quotes and perspectives that are in tension with each other? Or are they offering one side's view and sharing it as fact? When you ask these questions, you can spot the differences in coverage like the ones above and find ways to neutralize them. When you don’t, you end up with two audiences living in two separate realities.

For what it’s worth, there are signs that thinking like this would also be good for business. While just 44% of U.S. journalists believe they should strive to give every side equal coverage, 76% of Americans believe that. This doesn’t mean you have to give equal weight to “both sides” of every issue, but it does mean that providing more balance is something that audiences say they want.

2) Story selection

One of the most difficult expressions of media bias to detect comes through the kinds of stories newsrooms choose to cover in the first place. In today's media ecosystem, Fox News will jump on an opportunity to cover a story about an unauthorized immigrant killing someone in a drunk driving accident just as quickly as The New York Times will jump on a story about unauthorized immigrants starting new businesses. But they'll each rarely do the opposite.

Of course, there is a strong incentive against balanced story selection: The most profitable way to build a media company is to feed your audience stories that reaffirm their priors. Fox News is the most popular news channel on television, and every hour of their programming is designed to give conservative viewers more news that confirms what they already think. The New York Times is the most successful digital publication on the planet, and its audience of highly educated liberals gets article after article that buttresses their worldview.

Rather than follow that well trodden path, media outlets could focus on challenging their audiences — perhaps even angering them! — by giving voice to perspectives they aren't used to seeing, and by covering stories readers or viewers may not find typical of their publications. Both Fox News and The New York Times seem to be doing this more and more recently, which is a positive development. But we need much more of it. If you are an editor or journalist at a news outlet covering politics, and you see rival news outlets covering stories you don't want to touch, you should see that as a signal that you should, in fact, go cover them.

3) Transparency

The format of the Tangle newsletter offers some unique opportunities for transparency. For instance, I include a section every day called "My take," which allows me — the writer reporting the information — to offer my perspective and allow readers to identify my own biases. This might be an awkward or impossible thing for other newsrooms to do, but there is still a lot of low hanging fruit out there for increasing transparency.

One simple idea is issuing more prominent and explanatory corrections. In Tangle, if we get something wrong, we don't hide it as a footnote or "ghost edit" our story without alerting our readers, as even some of the most prominent news outlets have been caught doing. Instead, after we correct the story in our archive, we feature that correction prominently in the following day's newsletter.

We also do two other things any other news outlets could do: We try to explain how the mistakes happen. Or, at least, have some fun (when appropriate!) with our readers by offering insight into the error. And we share how many errors we've actually made. For instance, here is a correction we issued on January 10:

Yesterday, we inaccurately referred to Sen. Bob Casey (R-PA). Sen. Casey is a Democrat, and somehow this tiny error slipped past three Pennsylvania residents reviewing the newsletter (including me, the guy who writes it). My only excuse is that after the 2022 elections, I've written so much about retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, that "R-PA" became a reflex.

That's what you get when you play with rapid fire news hits...

This is our 75th correction in Tangle's 180-week history and our first correction since December 14th. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.

Of course, a newsletter like Tangle allows a level of informality that might not be achievable through another medium, but any major news outlet could do a better job of explaining their errors and how they happened. It's possible that might resolve some of the mounting suspicions so many people have about why those errors seem to only go in one direction.

Corrections and callouts aren't the only tools, though. Increased transparency is something more news outlets could bring to every single decision they make in the newsroom. For instance, in May, we decided to update our editorial policies. Rather than just change the way we produce our news, we released an entire edition explaining how we made the decisions we made, and gave our readers a chance to respond with their own thoughts. It was one of the most well received pieces we've ever published, even (perhaps especially) among the people who disagreed with where we ultimately landed. They were just appreciative of the fact we openly explained our reasoning. Which brings me to the next idea...

4) Invite readers in

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things about reading the local newspaper or Sports Illustrated was reading the letters to the editor. If you had sent in a comment, it was exhilarating to open up the new edition to see if what you wrote made it into print. And even if you hadn't, it was always fascinating to see how readers were reacting, and to see them challenge things that had been published the day or week before.

Today, bloggers tend to shy away from being intellectually challenged and have fun with "mailbags" where they mostly answer softball personal questions from their audience. At major newspapers, letters to the editor are now typically buried somewhere several clicks from the homepage. And at major television networks, you never hear from anyone besides the carefully curated hosts and guests (unless, of course, you are watching C-SPAN). One of the few media spaces where you still regularly hear reader pushback is on talk radio, where listeners are invited to call in to talk with the hosts, and the result is often both wildly entertaining and illuminating.

Across the media space, it feels like we've forgotten that the people who consume our content always have thoughts of their own. And that's a shame — not just because it is important for us as journalists to understand how our work is being read, but because seeing a portion of our audience’s reactions can be informative for the rest of the audience, too.

At Tangle, we've run several editions that were made up almost entirely of reader emails we've gotten, and they are some of the most popular, engaging, and eye-opening newsletters we've published. One week, we released five consecutive podcasts that were simply long-form interviews with randomly selected Tangle listeners. And we'll regularly feature reader responses to something we published, positioned prominently at the top of our daily email rather than buried on the back page. We try to engage even in the comment sections of stories or YouTube videos, rather than just let our audience argue among themselves.

This kind of reader interaction is important. Not only does making your audience feel heard build trust, but it can also inform you as the writer — because your audience is full of experts. There's a natural power dynamic in journalism that is rarely talked about in our industry, and which I think ought to be resisted. When thousands of people are reading your content, it's easy to convince yourself that you're the brilliant truth-sayer and your audience is coming to learn from you. While it's true that your audience is trusting you to provide reliable information, in the readership of the story you publish there is usually an expert who knows the topic better than you do.

For instance, I once wrote about the vote in California to recall progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin, and in ‘My take’ I reflected on his tenure. My piece generated some of the most feedback I've ever gotten to a newsletter, and included firsthand accounts from dozens and dozens of people who had been living in San Francisco for years, if not decades. These people had personal experiences, data, and even backgrounds working for the government in San Francisco that undermined the position I had taken. So I published all their feedback in a Google document that I then shared with our subscribers.

Why? Because not only did my expert readers have an opportunity to offer their informed perspectives as people who had just lived through everything I was commenting on in San Francisco, but the rest of my readership benefitted from hearing their perspectives, too.

All of this — giving readers a voice, replying to their feedback, and elevating their knowledge — builds trust. It makes readers feel they are part of the process of generating reliable information, because they are. And they should be.

5) Hiring

One of the most important political divides in America is now the education gap.

Especially among white voters, those without traditional four-year college degrees are far more likely to vote for Republicans than Democrats (while I don’t personally think that a four-year degree represents “education,” I do think it’s a useful statistic for predicting political affiliations). The impact this has had on the media space cannot be overstated: Nearly all journalists go to college, because that is typically how you learn to become a journalist.

I went to college at the University of Pittsburgh and got an undergraduate degree in non-fiction writing with a journalism track. I was fortunate that at a school like Pitt, in a city like Pittsburgh, in a state like Pennsylvania, there was quite a bit of ideological diversity (just like where I grew up). But in my journalism classes, there was far less. The overwhelming majority of classmates and teachers that I had were either overtly liberal or, by my best guess, left-of-center politically, based on their writing and attitudes.

This reality has been reflected in polling on the media industry. Perhaps the most well known of those polls was conducted by two Indiana University professors who, in 2013, found that just 7% of journalists self-identified as Republicans. 50% claimed to be moderate, 28.1% claimed to be Democrats, and 14.6% claimed to be "other." The share of journalists calling themselves independent had grown by 12 percentage points from 2002, but the share of Republicans had shrunk by 7% and the share of Democrats had shrunk by about 8%.

In 2020, The Washington Post sent a survey to 13,000 journalists, 13% of whom responded. They found that 78% of those reporters said they identified with or leaned toward a certain party and ideology, and of those 8 in 10 said they were liberal or Democrats. These surveys have been conducted for years, and they have been consistent.

In other words: There are a lot of signals out there that the people working at major news outlets are overwhelmingly self-identifying as independent/moderate or liberal. Very, very few are conservative or Republicans.

Now, there are a few things worth noting here. One is that a reporter who is liberal is not definitively a biased liberal reporter. There are fair journalists and there are hacks. I know a lot of journalists with liberal political beliefs who are harder on Democrats precisely because they care about fairness and about how Democrats act. I know a lot of liberal journalists whose politics you'd never spot by reading their reporting. But there are no objective journalists because there are no objective people — we are all biased and influenced by our experiences, our political leanings, how we grew up and the people we've met.

This, in some ways, actually creates an unexpected imbalance in the media: Conservative journalists and pundits, sensing that they are the minority in the space, are far more reluctant to criticize “their side.” Liberal journalists and pundits, understanding that they can "stick out" or earn credit by being hard on both sides, are more willing to do so. It's complicated. Just because The New York Times is overwhelmingly made up of people who probably vote for Democrats doesn't mean that it's always going to play nice with Democratic politicians. My favorite example to cite is that it was The New York Times that broke the “Hillary emails” story, which effectively ruined her political career.

But places like the Times still have to fight against developing an ideological culture, and the best way to do that is to build out a diverse newsroom. Not just in race or sex or age — but in education, geographical background, and political leanings.

If you're a hiring manager at Fox News, you should be seeking out reporters from the Huffington Post, and vice versa. If you're someone starting a new media company, you should try to hire people who have different backgrounds and different views on how the world works. If you create a newsroom without tension over language choices, story selection, and what quotes to feature prominently in an article, you won't have a balanced newsroom.

A couple of years ago, when I was first building my team, we hired an intern from Tennessee who had unabashed pro-life views. Since I’m someone with a generally pro-choice perspective, she was the single most important person on my staff any time we covered abortion. I sought out her opinions to challenge our coverage. I asked her for blind spots. I insisted she suggest edits that we could discuss. She didn't just make our coverage more balanced, she made it better — smarter, more expansive, and more holistic. She helped us touch on a controversial issue in a way that was accessible for all people, regardless of how they felt about the core issue at hand.

That is the power of diversity of thought in a newsroom. And it's sorely lacking from both right-leaning and left-leaning news outlets today.

Of course, you can't drag people in for interviews and ask them who they voted for. But you can look at a reporter's body of work — what stories they've covered, how those stories appear in print, the views they’ve shared on social media or in opinion pieces — and then seek out ideological diversity. That kind of intentional, straightforward team-building just isn't happening in today's media space.

Until it does, we'll be left with individual news outlets that speak to individual blocks of voters, and very few news outlets that bring a diverse audience under one roof. And we'll continue to see unfathomably low levels of trust in our media.

Thanks for reading.

Today was a subscribers-only Friday edition we shared with all our readers. If you enjoyed this edition, and want to read more like it, you can become a member. We release premium editions to our paying subscribers every week!

If you're already a member and enjoyed this piece, please consider dropping something in the tip jar or sharing this article online. You can find the article link here.

And don't forget: We've got a new blooper reel live on our YouTube channel!

Subscribe to Tangle

Join 90,000+ people getting Tangle directly to their inbox!

Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.