Only 29 percent of all Americans think news organizations "get the facts straight."

That's the word from The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press. Sixty-three percent say news reports are wrong, and 74 percent say news reporting tends to favor one side, the 2009 report indicated.

Consumers' diminishing attitudes toward news reporting is nothing new. It's been slipping since 1985, when the Times Mirror Center discovered that just 55 percent of the American public said news organizations got their facts straight.

Harsh criticism is hard to take. And some of

those surveyed likely just fired off their mouth without thinking.

Still, flaky as they are, perceptions form peoples' reality, so there must be a way to overcome this problem.

One idea, which might go a long way to resolving this perceived credibility gap, is to do what some politicians do: Co-opt the critics.

In other words, reach out to the reading public for their knowledge, experience, passion and interests to help the newsroom cover the community.

Public insight journalism

Developed at Minnesota Public Radio, public insight journalism, or PIJ, accomplishes two goals: First, it's community outreach; second, and more importantly, it expands the newsroom's sources.

"It reshapes the way you think about your job," said Linda Fantin, MPR's PIJ director. "You're going from a model of scarcity, in terms of sources, to one of abundance."

PIJ is more than a strategy. It is a database that allows news organizations to create a network of sources from all walks of life, from top government officials and well-educated professionals to Joe Six Pack.

MPR's database includes 24,000 people in Minnesota and another 60,000 around the country and overseas, Fantin says.

"It's searchable by ZIP code, passion, interests and expertise and occupation," Fantin said. "You can quickly reach out to people (on any topic) and gain insight."

MPR launched PIJ in 2003, when Bill Kling, CEO of the station's parent company, American Public Media, realized MPR had listeners who wrote "thoughtful comments and letters about complex subjects."

"They clearly had expertise and insight that we lacked," Kling said. "The biggest surprise was the realization that they were willing to give us the benefit of that insight and knowledge - that they wanted to contribute to the accuracy and depth of information."

The alternative view

Here's how it works. Remember that Northwest Airlines flight that overshot the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport by 150 miles last October?

Instead of doing just the usual - running to the airport to interview Flight 188's passengers or seeking comment from the airline - MPR did something better.

Utilizing its PIJ database, the station found Hemant Bahana, a pilot with nine years' experience flying the same plane, an Airbus A320.

He provided background and wrote a commentary piece for the station's Web site.

Without its PIJ database, MPR wouldn't have had Bahana's expert knowledge, unless, of course, he'd felt obligated to call the newsroom, a tall wish if ever there was one.

PIJ "expands your knowledge base," said Margaret Wolf Freivogel, editor of the St. Louis-based online newspaper The Beacon, which has more than 1,000 people in its 18-month-old PIJ database.

"We've found people (through the PIJ database) I know we wouldn't have found otherwise," said Freivogel.

Instead of being forced to interview friends of friends to gain insight into a story, Freivogel says PIJ gives The Beacon the ability to cast a wide net when looking for sources.

Good old-fashioned shoe leather

Think again before you add this database on the hunch that, gosh, once we've got it, they will come.

Getting people into the ranks will take some good, old-fashioned shoe leather, including handing out cards with details about joining PIJ in places where there are large gatherings, like airports, malls, coffee shops, churches, train stations, bus stops - maybe even your local library. The possibilities are endless.

MPR has handed out cards at the airport and used its airtime to promote and increase the ranks of its PIJ database, Fantin says.

You might even need to add - dare I say it? - an employee who understands good reporting, has the necessary skills to encourage people to join the database and the mental capacity to quickly pick up the program.

Bringing PIJ to your paper

If I were an editor, I'd make time to learn about this service, which MPR markets for an annual fee of $5,000.

If it's half as good as Linda Fantin claims, it's an effective tool for building community outreach, increasing goodwill, improving journalism and providing stories that might go unreported.

In the history of the two mediums, radio, because it can't be seen or touched, has worked harder than newspapers to be noticed by the public.

Like newspapers today, radio has also been pronounced dead.

Yet it continues.

Maybe it's time for newspapers to adopt one of radio's tools.

Doug Page blogs and hosts "The Press Room" talk show on newsandtech.com. He can be reached at dpagenewsandtech@gmail.com.

 

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