Trust in mass media has fallen to an all-time low, according to a 2016 Gallup Poll. Only one-third of Americans trust the media a great deal or a fair amount to report the news “fully, fairly and accurately.”

Trust in local news could also use some work, Pew Research found last year. Only 22 percent of respondents have a lot of confidence in the information provided by local news. Another 60 percent have at least some confidence.

There are likely many reasons for the erosion of trust on the local level. Real and perceived biases among journalists. Lack of understanding of how newsrooms operate and reporters do their jobs. Factual errors. “Breaking news.” “Fake news.”

What can we do to rebuild trust?

The media must be accountable and transparent. Right now, it is not.

When people express concerns about a story, they’re often met with defensiveness and superiority. Published or on-air corrections are few and far between. There’s little public discussion about editorial decisions, such as why a news outlet chose to cover – or not cover – a particular story.

This is why we need a Rochester Ombudsman Committee. The volunteer committee could be made up of several media professors or former journalists. Members of the public who have concerns about news coverage could ask the committee for an advisory opinion. The committee members would talk to all relevant parties. Ideally, all local outlets would support the committee’s work and participate in its reviews. The opinions would be posted online.

The Rochester Ombudsman Committee could be under the wing of a local college or the Rochester Media Association.

A Rochester Ombudsman Committee could have tackled some interesting issues this year. The Democrat and Chronicle did a story on a house for sale that was the site of a decades-old murder, prompting the homeowner to fear a loss of thousands of dollars. Media outlets devoted a lot of resources to the Rideout and Leticia Astacio criminal cases, raising questions of proportionality. Coverage of the mayoral contest dropped off after the primary, causing some voters to think the race was over.

This week, City Newspaper’s cover story details the impact of Sinclair Broadcasting’s conservative bent on affiliate 13WHAM-TV. The article takes a critical look at some of the stories Sinclair forces its stations to run. This is the type of work a Rochester Ombudsman Committee could perform.

A robust media that holds the powerful accountable is vital to democracy. We have to hold the media accountable, too. Otherwise, important journalism will no longer have an impact.

Author: Rachel Barnhart

  1. Erich Van Dussen says:

    As a former fulltime journalist, current freelancer and communications professional, I would be very interested in participating in such a group. The knotty challenge of regaining public trust is too complex for either simple capitulation or above-it-all blind confidence. And with the state of audience fragmentation today, no one media entity can hope to address these issues on its own. A regionally focused group, understanding demographics and unique cultural tics, might be our best hope.

  2. Gary Pudup says:

    Good luck, that Greater Rochester has no daily newspaper of substance is troubling. Good government depends on an informed citizenry, the Fourth Estate has an obligation that is unfulfilled in this area. Without public radio we’d be absolutely lost.

  3. I love the idea of an Ombudsman Committee. I’d advocate for a local, experienced, nonprofit health expert to sit on it.

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