Rod Hicks has spent 30 years as a journalist in seven newsrooms across the country. He’s been a reporter at the Anniston Star in Alabama, an editor for The Associated Press in Philadelphia, and has worked in Detroit, St. Louis and Birmingham, Alabama.
But before this year, he had never set foot in Wyoming — where residents give the rock-bottom ranking to the news media for trustworthiness, according to a 2017 Gallup poll: Only 25 percent of Wyoming citizens have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in news sources. (The runners up are all red states, too: Nebraska, Utah, North Dakota and Idaho.)
Enter the Casper Project, a journey by the Society of Professional Journalists organization into the heart of media mistrust. For about six months, media people and 36 Casper-area citizen volunteers met on several occasions to try for some mutual understanding.
The bottom-line result wasn’t great: According to a final questionnaire, participants didn’t change their attitudes toward the news media significantly or become any more trusting, said Hicks, who headed the project as SPJ’s “journalist on call,” and who has made six trips to Casper since January.
“But I think we made some progress,” he told me by phone. “Just by exposing people to the journalists and their thinking and how they do their jobs — there’s a lot of value in that.”
The final session, a public event at Casper College in July, included staffers from The Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press.
Things got a little tense at times.
At one point, Chuck Hawley, a Casper real estate agent and broker, who was one of the larger program’s participants, tried to pin down the panel members on what he considered a given.
Hawley asked for a show of hands from those journalists who accept that there is a liberal media bias that works against President Donald Trump and conservative values.
No one bit. Writing afterward in the Casper Star-Tribune, the state’s largest newspaper, Hawley professed his shock: “Not one of these editors was willing to admit to what most view as an obvious and overt liberal bias in reporting.”
…What’s worse, in Hawley’s view: “The real bias is not what the media prints and airs nightly, but rather what they don’t: Conservative viewpoints are ignored or slanted if it does not fit a liberal narrative.”
Wyoming residents may not have gone away with a glowing view of the media, but several of the journalists thought it was worthwhile.
“I believe as a generalization we wrongly assume readers/viewers know how journalists operate,” said Neal Lipschutz, deputy editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal, in an email to me.
“More open talk about the processes at various news institutions is needed and valuable.”
One example of this, noted in the SPJ report, is that many news consumers believe that the identity of unnamed sources are not even known to the journalists themselves. That’s not how it works: Reporters may agree to protect a source’s identity, but they — and normally one of their editors — know who the sources are.
And Lori Montgomery, deputy national editor of The Post, came away from Casper realizing anew how upset people — regardless of political leaning — are with the deep divisions in American society: “Part of the anger with the mainstream media is that they see us fanning those flames.”
Maybe, Montgomery told me, “we should ask ourselves whether we could do more to heal those wounds,” while still serving in the all-important watchdog role and still covering important news events without flinching.
One of the report’s recommendations is that journalists should engage with their audience more regularly. Hear them out. Talk to them.
The publisher of the Casper paper, Dale Bohren, in a follow-up piece, took the advice so seriously that he invited readers to call him up any time. The column’s last line: his office phone number.
“I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed,” Hicks, the Casper Project leader, told me. “We knew it would be difficult to really change anyone’s mind.”
As the news media heads into a fiery election year, there’s no solution in sight.
But you have to give the Casper Project and its participants credit for trying, against the odds, to make progress. Or at least to show the intractability of the problem.