Close encounters of the media-bias kind

This was first published on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Journalism has a marketing problem, and we’re not doing nearly enough to fix it.

What separates the work you’re doing from the rest of “the media” (my least favorite two-word phrase)? And how are you making that clear to your audience?

Over the last few months, I’ve jumped into a project looking at how social media can help journalists enhance their credibility. I’m lining up partner newsrooms to help me test some strategies, and some of those partners will experiment with how to better tell their own stories.

We can’t assume our information speaks for itself. Two recent encounters I’ve had underscored the urgency of this situation.

The first was a conversation with a neighbor. She said until she got to know me a bit, she always thought of journalists as ambulance chasers. She described the local newspaper as biased and said she didn’t really have much use for news.

She then told me how excited she was about a story she saw in the arts section that weekend and how it allowed her to make a meaningful connection with a like-minded person.

But she didn’t see that as “news” or “journalism.” It didn’t register with her that local journalists had concretely enriched her life just in the last few days.

Then I met a retired executive while waiting for a nonprofit’s board meeting to begin. When he heard what I do for a living, he told me the problem with news today is news no longer bears much resemblance to the news of his childhood, when objective journalists presented facts. That’s why no one will pay for news, a trend he believes is irreversible.

I asked if he was talking about local or national news, and he said he meant mostly national TV news.

So where does he get his local news? How does he find out what’s happening around town? He sees headlines on the Internet. He couldn’t really tell me where those headlines come from, and he didn’t have complaints about bias related to those. But he also doesn’t think local news is worth paying for. (The meeting started before I could ask him more questions.)

What value do we offer? What sets us apart from all the rest of the “headlines on the Internet”? If we don’t tell the story of our journalism, why should we be surprised that people don’t believe in it?

It’s not enough to hope that our audiences understand our values and mission based on the links we share. Not nearly enough.

What’s the story of your journalism?

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