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Survey offers some encouragement

For those of us who have been toiling away at the news business for a long time, the notion that what we produce is “fake” gets old really fast. Working to gather stories that matter to our readers, getting them right and reporting them accurately is a matter of pride.

As one of those whose career has been devoted to local news, I’ve always had the sense that the pejorative “fake news” was directed primarily at the Washington, D.C.-based media focused on national politics, not at community newspapers or TV stations. That’s partly because the current occupant of the White House uses the term to describe national news stories he doesn’t like or that paint him in a less-than-flattering light, and partly because the certifiable fake news — the “birther” conspiracies, the mass shooting “false flag” claims and the D.C.-pizza-parlor-kiddie-porn-ring lunacy — are distributed nationally via the internet.

Now, thanks to the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, there is survey data to back up my gut feeling.

In May, the lab, together with Google Surveys, polled more than 6,000 web users about their attitudes toward news. The sample was weighted to represent American adults.

The results were encouraging to me, and I hope to all those who produce local news.

When researchers asked, “What is the first word you think when you hear the word news?” the word “fake” came up most often. But when asked the same question about local news, respondents most often gave the name of their town or region, their local paper or TV or radio station. Responding to the words “local news,” more than two-thirds used neutral words such as “information,” “paper” and “television.”

When responding to just the word “news,” more than half still used neutral terms, but 37 percent used negative terms besides “fake,” including “bad,” “biased” and “sad.” (I wonder how many used that last term because they were echoing one of the president’s favorite Twitter words).

Beyond their reactions to “news” and “local news,” respondents were asked if they could easily tell the difference between fact and opinion in the general flow of news. Sixty-one percent said it was easy or very easy. But somewhat fewer cable TV news viewers said they found it easy. And overall, 16 percent said they found it difficult or very difficult to tell the difference. The percentage of cable TV news consumers who found it difficult was 18 percent; 13 percent of local news consumers said they had difficulty.

Newspapers, whether local or nationally distributed, clearly label their opinion pages as such, and local TV stations rarely offer anything beyond straight news on their newscasts. Cable news channels, on the other hand, devote hours to opinion programming, and their “news” segments often feature panelists with axes to grind and dueling guests arguing about their take on the latest news development.

And when major newspapers distribute their opinion content on social media, even though it is labeled “Opinion,” that little word can be easy to overlook, especially on a phone-sized screen. It’s no wonder consumers get confused.

All I can say is, stick with this local news provider, and we’ll continue to give you the neutral information you need to know about what’s happening in your community, and we’ll continue to clearly label our opinion pages, where we give you a wide range of opinions on the issues of the day.

Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary E. Nelson at genelson@rosebudmedia.com.