Improving the news—and building democracy—in 2018 (and beyond)

"It is rewarding to contribute to what we hope can be a gradual rebuilding of trust between the public and the news media," says APM Research Lab Managing Partner Craig Helmstetter.

"It is rewarding to contribute to what we hope can be a gradual rebuilding of trust between the public and the news media," says APM Research Lab Managing Partner Craig Helmstetter.

By Craig Helmstetter, Managing Partner

No faking

Improving the news—and building democracy—in 2018 (and beyond)

We have a lofty mission here at the Research Lab: To foster an engaged democracy by inspiring curiosity, inquiry and discussion through fact-driven, credible research and analysis.

Our perch for this democracy-building endeavor is within a major national media organization, and we see newsrooms as among our major natural partners. People need credible information to make the informed choices that democracy demands, and newsrooms have long been the general public's primary channel for serious information. 

Thus, it has been a little disheartening to see the recent spate of reports on mistrust in the news media:

How can we rebuild trust in America's essential fourth estate? I suspect that some combination of listening to others, presenting solidly-researched information, and being as transparent as possible will help. And that is just what we've been doing in our first major project: the Ground Level Survey with Minnesota Public Radio News. 

We started by listening to the views of 1,654 Minnesotans. Not a survey of MPR's membership. Not only focused on Minneapolis-St. Paul area residents. A scientifically representative sample of the state's entire adult population, including 8 sub-regions throughout the state. 

Then we rigorously analyzed the data. We've written five white papers to date, and just released a brief on Rural and Urban similarities and differences, focusing on statistically significant results. (Yes, we've tested everything.) Transparency? See the methods report, all of the topline results, and the complete catalogue of open-ended comments that we received from survey respondents.

It has been our pleasure to work on all of this with MPR News. They have already put together a dozen stories based on the survey results. And they have been particularly strong on listening through the interviews they've conducted to flesh out survey results, as well as their call-in shows based on survey results, their recent in-person forum on hopefulness in the state's African American community, and their continual invitations to contribute thoughts online.

Does this work help foster an engaged democracy? Or a more trustworthy news media? We certainly have our work cut out for us: Among the most salient findings from the Ground Level Survey is that the news media is among the least trusted, most politically divisive, institutions in Minnesota

But it is rewarding to contribute to what we hope can be a gradual rebuilding of trust between the public and the news media. The health of our democracy may depend on it.

-Craig (@c_helmstetter)

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Craig Helmstetter