COMMENTARY: As doubts about press grow, local news retains trust

Malheur Enterprise staff – August 2019

As the country readies for nationally televised impeachment hearings, America’s trust in the press is more in doubt than ever.

For those of us in the profession, that’s deeply troubling.

If readers don’t trust what we report, the hard work of ferreting out the truth is just so much typing practice.

More importantly, citizens are left struggling to find truth on which to agree and then to act. When facts are in dispute, whether it’s over immigration, drug addiction or homelessness, debate becomes immobilized. That’s not good for Malheur County or for Oregon.

A new study shows signs of hope, at least when it comes to the local press.

“State of Public Trust in Local News,” produced by the Knight Foundation and Gallup, found that Americans tend to trust their local reporters more than the national news.

That’s heartening.

But a deeper look at the numbers shows that all of us laboring to cover Vale or Bend or Portland have work to do. We aren’t trusted by enough readers.

The study found that 45% of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in local news, compared to 31% for national news. Fine. We do better than our national colleagues. But that’s no celebration. That means 55% have less than deep trust in the work of the local press.

As a local institution, Americans don’t rank the local press highly among community institutions. People have more confidence in libraries, local police and local churches.

But the study showed a path forward – and one we focus on at the Malheur Enterprise.

First, the study found that 79% of Americans find the local press is reporting on matters that figure in their daily lives. That underscores our belief at the Enterprise – that people are far more concerned with and interested in what happens in schools and local business and local charities than they are with the State Department or Congress or other federal institutions.

Second, the study finds a hunger for more. Readers want the local press to dig deeper into topics that matter. The study found more attention should be given to drug addiction, local schools, the environment and the housing market. And 60% of Americans quizzed in the study found that local news outfits did only a “fair” or “poor” job of holding local leaders accountable.

At the Enterprise, we’ve steadily built a reputation for holding leaders accountable. Some don’t like it and neither do their friends, but they don’t challenge our accuracy and go silent by ignoring questions.

That’s not easy in a community where tough questions haven’t always been asked. We too often have to fight to get at government records that reveal the truth about your leaders. We too often get stiff armed by officials who see no need to answer questions about their conduct, their programs, and their spending.

Our team in Vale is skilled at leaping such hurdles, and we’ll continue sharpening and expanding our coverage of local matters.

The question for you, the reader, is whether to trust what we report.

You can’t decide, for instance, your view about dealing with Ontario’s homeless issue if you don’t have facts to back your judgment. You can’t decide whether you want to be on the hook for new county debt to go into land speculation if you don’t have facts about where the money would go.

Without key information, you won’t know if public officials are saying one thing and doing another. You won’t know if government decisions serve your interests – or special interests with the ear of those in power.

So, what’s a reader to do?

Understand, first, that the Enterprise operates on principles the staff lives by daily. We make those principles public. We are driven to earn and keep your trust. We are determined to scrub even the appearance of bias out of our reports. We are determined to always serve the citizen, not favor those in power – or fear them.

Then, you can question us. If you doubt our information or wonder its source, ask us. We are transparent about where we get our reporting and our facts. If we err, we’ll fix it and promptly.

As journalists, we will do all we can to earn your trust. At the same time, consider giving that trust based not on general perceptions of the media but on our performance.

One wall in the way is the issue of bias. Across the country, people have become more fixed in their views. Because of the unchecked content on social media, people seem to more readily conclude that any view or fact that doesn’t fit their own isn’t to be trusted and is the result of deliberate bias.

I can’t speak for the national media, which does have much to atone for. In the days ahead, prepare to read and hear conflicting reporting on what happens in the Congressional impeachment hearings and what it means.

Here in Malheur County, though, we’re working every day to build a news organization you can trust. We do so because it’s vital to the community’s future, that readers like you believe what they read of ours. We want your trust, certainly, to sustain our business, but more crucially to sustain Malheur County as a place to live and prosper. This community needs citizens who believe in the possibilities for change, for improvement. The community needs citizens to act on facts, not emotions powered by argument.

We fervently intend to continue building a local news organization in Malheur County that is an instrument of that progress by earning your deep and continuing trust.

Les Zaitz is publisher and editor of the Enterprise and a journalist in Oregon for more than 45 years. Send him comments at: [email protected].


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