In a focus group I sat in on last week, one local news viewer said, “There are plenty of places I can turn to for opinion, no matter if it is left, right or something else. I watch the local news because it isn’t like that.” According to our research, his viewpoint is shared by the majority of Americans.
In any public opinion poll you read, “the media” does not fare well these days. Now that the Trump team is consistently casting the media as liars and
charlatans, the media as a whole may actually sink lower than Congress in the public’s view – and that’s pretty low!
I think there are steps local stations can take in this environment to help themselves. And perhaps, there’s also a glimmer of hope for the future of journalism and localism, despite the broadside attacks and dire warnings.
Local television news has always maintained a special place in cities and towns across the country because of its relationship with viewers. Stations are filled with local people presenting local stories about events and topics in differing styles which appeal to their specific audience. In most markets, there are a couple of stations you can easily identify that are “trusted” by local people. It is like the old adage, “I hate Congress, but my Congressman or woman is a great person.” The media as an institution is worthy of scorn, but many of its local practitioners seem to viewers fair and trustworthy. We aren’t seen as being in the “fake news” or “alternative facts” business.
Which organizations are in the withering line of fire and criticism? Cable news channels, networks and national newspapers head the list as having axes to grind, over-the-top reactions and social agendas. Viewers recognize how stories can be framed with a point of view, and they don’t much appreciate it when those points of view are not their own.
So as the sharks circle, here are a couple of things to keep in mind.
- Be protective of your audience’s trust. Many stations are fortunate to have it. Accuracy, fairness, and being correct can reinforce opinions. If there is a mistake, fix it. If you are trusted in your market (and you can prove it) think about including it in your image promotion.
- Do more to point out your service to the community. Whether it is true public service, weather coverage or an investigation that gets results, stake a claim and take credit. That doesn’t always mean running a promo; it does mean telling your story so viewers understand your commitment. If you don’t do it, be prepared for the anti-media narrative to take over.
- Think twice before jumping into the political fray. Of course there are big political stories to cover. But is there a downside to dissecting national politics? Maybe it’s better to stay closer to home and show how viewers in your market will be impacted by change. (That goes for your website, app and Facebook page, too.) Is having a Washington, D.C. bureau these days really an advantage inside your local newscast? Despite good intentions, will “accountability” be interpreted as an agenda by your viewers?
- Embrace local news. As local daily newspapers lose print circulation and shed staff, local station newsrooms are positioned to become even more valuable to local viewers. Align your coverage with the people you serve. They are counting on you more than ever.
It’s going to be an interesting few years. As journalists there’s a lot at stake. It strikes me that local television news and the people who work in the profession may have a better read on America than the national media or either political party right now. Let’s keep it that way.