Public trust of citizen journalists could bring credibility to newsrooms

By Brooke Stobbe

Public trust in the news media has fallen to new lows, according to Gallup’s most recent annual survey results released in June. That’s a rather depressing lead, but there’s a legitimate decline in audience trust amid a profound proliferation of news. However, new media research gives a little more insight into this wariness and may offer a possible route to regaining trust of some audience groups through citizen journalism.

“The perception is that within communities, the newspaper isn’t reporting the whole story,” Matthew Barnidge, one of the researches and a doctoral candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said. “It’s a real challenge, but it’s a real opportunity.”

In a recent paper in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Barnidge and his co-authors explore how two types of readers perceive credibility of mainstream news media and citizen journalists – amateurs who create news content in collaboration with a newsroom or just to extend hyper-local information.

In a phone interview, Barnidge explained these two sides in simple terms:

Skeptics lump all kinds of news media together, and they don’t trust any of them unless these viewers are dedicated to one particular source, such as FOX News or MSNBC. In that case, they exclude preferred sources from their mistrust. However, they’re suspicious of mainstream news practices and are more likely to perceive credibility in citizen reporting.

Political cynics, on the other hand, associate mainstream media with politics. When there’s a social problem, they assume news media has something to do with it. Research suggests they may prefer citizen journalists because of their disassociation with mainstream media.

In order to measure media trust, the research subjects completed a pre-exposure questionnaire to show levels of cynicism and skepticism. They then read an email from a fake political action committee attacking the (also fictitious) Democratic candidate in a close upcoming race. The email then linked to one of two videos, each with the same content. One was produced to resemble a CBS newscast and the other like an ameteur blogger reporting on an alleged sexual attack of an intern by the Democrat. Following the video, participants took a post-exposure questionnaire to examine media credibility.

In the experiment, both the cynics and skeptics perceived the blogger more credible than the newscast.

If the cynics and skeptics of this world dissociate citizen journalists with the perceived “politically driven” or “ethically compromised” news media, citizen journalists my help rekindle what is now a declining trust in new media.

In turn, can we hope that respect for citizen journalists could bring professional journalists more credibility?

“How to maintain that core of valued, old-fashioned reporting and branch out and reconnect with those who distrust the media and politics… might be through citizen and community-based journalists,” Barnidge said. “Reading voices from people who are more like themselves, [readers] might start to redevelop that trust and relationship with their local news.”

Barnidge co-authored his paper, “Cynics and Skeptics: Evaluating the Credibility of Mainstream and Citizen Journalism,” with D. Jasun Carr, Matthew Barnidge, Byung Gu Lee and Stephanie Jean Tsang.

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