Margaret Sullivan: “Bad news for journalists: The public doesn’t share our values.”

From a Washington Post column by Margaret Sullivan headlined “Bad news for journalists: The public doesn’t share our values. But there’s hope.”:

Ask almost any group of journalists to name the core values of their profession, and they’ll probably deliver a list like this:

Oversight. We’re the watchdogs keeping an eye on government officials and other powerful people and institutions.

Transparency. We believe it’s best to put information out in the open, not keep it hidden.

Factuality. It’s crucial to provide as much accurate information as possible to get to the truth.

Spotlighting wrongdoing. We think society’s problems are best solved by exposing them to public criticism.

Giving a voice to the voiceless. It’s our job to advocate for those lacking power or social standing….

“Journalism is a tribe,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. “These are our core values, and we think that everybody shares them.”

But, according to some major new research released today, these values can be a turnoff for the general public. And it suggests that journalists who want to reach the broadest audience and have the greatest impact should consider changing how they think about and present their work.

The study, “A New Way of Looking at Trust in Media,” is from the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between API and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It builds on research led by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt into the importance of moral values — such as fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity — in people’s lives.

Researchers asked participants how much they support the values I mentioned above — transparency, factuality, etc. — but kept it in the abstract, without specifying a focus on journalism.

The results indicated that only one of five core values touted by journalists also shares the support of a majority of Americans — the idea that more facts get us closer to the truth. About 7 people in 10 support this.

The value drawing the least support is the idea that a good way to make society better is to spotlight its problems. Only about 3 in 10 agree.

And only about 1 in 10 Americans fully support all five of the journalism values that were tested.

Support for these values does not break cleanly along party, demographic or ideological lines but rather seems to be driven by “moral instincts.”

People who most prize loyalty and authority are much less likely than others to see the need for a “watchdog” over the powerful; while people who put a high value on fairness are more likely to think society should amplify the voices of those lacking power….

The report divides respondents into four groups, according to their various moral principles: Upholders, Loyalists, Moralists, and Journalism Supporters. Alas, that last group is the smallest of the four. But we have a chance of making inroads with some of the others….

Rosenstiel observed that journalists, ever eager to get the most clicks on stories, have become skilled at using “A/B testing” to compare headlines to see which one is more appealing. This study’s findings, he argues, offer new ways for journalists to experiment with story presentation, as the Associated Press plans to do.

This research, troubling as it is, offers journalists the chance to think differently. Given the depth of our trust problem, we would do well to take that opportunity.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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