Howard Schneider, executive director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University, leads a discussion on media bias with Casper Project participants on May 7, 2019. (Rod Hicks)

Media trust in America has sunk to alarming lows. From an acme of some 70% of Americans who reported having a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media in 1976, that number had plummeted to 32% by 2016. 

The Society of Professional Journalists, a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to perpetuating a strong free press, set out to get to the bottom of this troubling erosion. The organization in 2017 tapped veteran editor and journalist Rod Hicks — a former editor with the Associated Press, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and elsewhere — to pilot a project aimed at better understanding, and potentially reversing, the trend.

Rod Hicks

The quest landed him in Casper, which studies have identified as a ground zero of sorts for media distrust. 

There, he launched The Casper Project, a 6-month-long series of community discussions aimed at gaining a deep understanding of the causes behind distrust. During the project, some three dozen Casper residents — including 16 conservatives, 12 liberals and seven moderates — gathered every few Tuesdays. During sessions, participants aired concerns about media bias, learned about the functions of newsrooms and took in panels and presentations from media professionals. 

At times, things grew tense. There were occasional outbursts. And in the end, minds weren’t drastically changed. But, Hicks said, it was a valuable and eye-opening experience that contained important lessons both for journalists and news consumers. 

“Going into this, I assumed that we would not change most people’s minds,” Hicks said. “I wanted them to get something out of it even if it didn’t change their minds. So, we now have three dozen people who are more savvy news consumers, and I think that is noteworthy.”

It was also personally illuminating for Hicks, who had never set foot in Wyoming before the project. Hicks, who presented his final findings to participants and the public last week in Casper, sat down with WyoFile to talk about the project, why it’s time for media outlets to take a hard look in the mirror and his first encounter with real-life cowboys. 

WF: Why did you pick Casper for this project?

RH: I did not want the selection of the place that we went to be totally arbitrary. I went to some organizations that do polling, particularly polling of the media, like the Pew Research Center and Gallup. When I talked to Gallup, they told me that just the year before, a survey they had released identified the top states with the highest level of media distrust. And Wyoming was at the top of the list.

Now, you have to put it into perspective. Everybody hates the press. So it’s not like Wyoming is way up here and the rest of the country is way down there. Wyoming is slightly above everybody else.

And [I chose] Casper because it’s centrally located, has a good population, it has the biggest newspaper and the only newspaper that is published seven days a week, plus it has some other local media options in television, radio and online. 

Did you have much experience visiting Wyoming or spending time here?

I had never been to Wyoming before in my life, and I’ve been to like 36 states.

What did you think?

It is very unfamiliar to me, but I think it’s nice. One of the things I thought was so cool was seeing the mountains in the distance and the landscape. And I was intrigued by the culture there. I went to restaurants on the weekends, and the guys had on their jeans and boots and plaid shirts and cowboy hats. That’s how they dress up to go out. It’s not just the stereotype. I was intrigued by that.

Joshua Wolfson (left), editor of the Casper Star-Tribune, addresses participants of The Casper Project during a session on June 4, 2019. Other local journalists who participated include, left to right, Nick Learned, news director, K2 Radio; Halle Jones, anchor, KTWO-TV; and Trevor Trujillo, editor, Oil City News. (Rod Hicks)

What were you looking for in participants of the project?

I wanted people who were going to be thoughtful and who really wanted to let us know legitimate concerns that they had with the media. I wanted there to be above all else some legitimate concern with how the media works and some interest in seeing it improve.

What would you say were your major takeaways from the sessions?

One of the things that people kept saying, throughout the entire project, was that the media is biased. This even started before the sessions started because we gave everyone a survey as part of their registration to participate, and one of the questions was, “what’s the biggest problem with the news media?” And bias was the winner, by a long shot. I mean, overwhelmingly. So that theme kept coming up. And one of the takeaways for me is that there just has to be some legitimacy to that. I really do believe that journalists need to look for that in the copy. Before I had this job, I worked at the Associated Press for almost 10 years as an editor. If I were to go back to the AP editing copy again, I think that I would do it with a different eye. I would be looking for things like that. 

You also noted in your report a difference in perspectives of local versus national news outlets, particularly when it related to anything about President Trump. Can you talk about that?

One of the things that the people in the group did was go on a tour of the newspaper and the TV station. The editor at the newspaper said he was expecting people to come there complaining that, you know, “you give this high school sport more coverage than this one.” But all they wanted to talk about was national politics, specifically how Donald Trump is treated in the press.

I was a little surprised by that. I went in knowing that local media enjoys a higher level of trust than national media. So I expected them to have more complaints about the national news than local. But I don’t know that I expected them to largely focus on national news.

Dean Miller, editor of The Jefferson County & Port Townsend Leader in Washington state, leads a discussion with Casper Project participants on March 19, 2019, about how to distinguish news from other types of information. (Rod Hicks)

And it sounds like no participant changed his or her mind in drastic ways regarding their feelings on the press. Despite that, do you think it was a valuable exercise, and why?

I think it was valuable. We were trying to accomplish two things. One, we wanted to educate people. We wanted them to become more discerning news consumers. We wanted them to better understand how the media works, and what goes into the types of decisions that news organizations have to make. I wanted them to better discern between news and other types of information — propaganda, advertising, satire even.

The other side of it is that we wanted to really understand what is the root of this distrust. What is the press doing wrong that makes people feel that it is overwhelmingly biased. And the reason we wanted that was because we wanted to figure out what can we do differently to win these people back.

If you had one recommendation for media outlets to help salvage and rebuild this, what would it be?

If I only had to say one, it would be to turn on your bias antenna when you’re reading copy or writing your news product. Look for it. Question whether this can be construed as biased. Because I don’t think you’re going to catch it unless you are actively looking for it. We’ve become immune to it. 

Another thing I know you were stressing to media is better engagement.

Yes. We need to demystify this process that we go through. I make a mention of I really hope that journalists go to the website and look at the examples of what newsrooms are actually doing. They are explaining controversial decisions that they make, they are opening up to their audiences, looking for opportunities for engagement. I just think you can’t do that enough.

You have to be really transparent and really talk to your audiences. Try to get to know them, try to get to know what they want. And respect them. 

The Casper Project’s logo (Courtesy Rod Hicks)

Another interesting thing you brought up is that professional journalists know all the intricacies of the job and maybe take for granted that many people don’t. 

We have our own jargon in our business. We think that everybody knows what a cutline, a headline, a dateline, all these lines are. And they don’t! We talk about anonymous sources, and we expect that people know what that means. People do not know what that means.

We have to understand that we are so close to this that we forget that the general population doesn’t know all this stuff. 

There has been a lot of negative news about the decline of journalism in the last decade. Despite that, can you talk about its role in a healthy democracy? Why is journalism important enough to try to bolster with efforts like this project?

We asked people in this project in their registration form, “How important is a free press to a democracy?” Everybody indicated it was important. And they are right. I hope people also recognize that if the press is essential to a democracy, the fact that they don’t trust it is a problem.

Support WyoFile with a tax-deductible donation today.

In these times, we really, really, need a free press. We need to put a check on power. That’s one of the most important things we can do as journalists. And that’s the way it was intended. We’re in the Constitution for a reason. And so, the press needs to do the best that it can to be fair and to be unbiased and to be accurate. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

This story has been updated to clarify the meaning of the first sentence. —ED.

Katie Klingsporn reports on outdoor recreation, public lands, education and general news for WyoFile. She’s been a journalist and editor covering the American West for 20 years. Her freelance work has...

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  1. Terrific to hear that Wyo folks are more intelligent than average……….even though I suspected as much.

    The other good quality for Wyomingites is their refusal to follow media like sheep. Media has become extremely corrupted agenda driven drivel.

  2. We as human beings have bias built into our DNA. Unfortunately we let that bias take hold of our critical thinking process. “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
    Thank goodness for journalist who are trying to bring balance to all venues of journalism

  3. Media bias? Ya think DiNozzo?! THANK YOU for bringing the topic out into the light! I’m eager to see where it goes.

    Years ago, there was a segment at the end of the news (can’t remember the show or network) called “Point – Counterpoint” where two individuals would each take a few minutes to present opposite sides of an issue. This mini-debate brought out points for the viewer to consider. We could use more of that style in media.

    1. Robb- As one who has been in journalism since age 16 ( I’m 68 now ) , I’ve learned that nearly every person who swears the news media is biased is a person who has no idea how newsgathering really works and the methodology of the journalistic process. They default to : I don;t agree with that , so it must be flawed somehow… which became bias …and finally devolved to the hue and cry of ” Fake News ! ” which frankly I only heard spoke out loud maybe five times in the five decades before Trump was elected, and now I hear it five times a day. Then there’s this : While it is technically an unbreakable rule of the 4D Universe that every story has at least two sides ( nothing detectable by us can be 1-dimensional ) too many people make the mistake that each ‘ side’ must be given equal space or air time, a 50/50 balance of information. So when you go to a public meeting on a topic, and 9 people speak for something and one speaks against, is it realistic to expect next week’s Cody Emptyprize to have 10 column inches on each side of the issue ? Of course not. It all needs to be apportioned and weighted. Example : 98+ percent of the world’s scientists qualified to give an informed opinion on Climate Change will tell us it is real and mankind is driving it faster and further. But that Counterpoint needs to be adjusted to scale. It’s a tough call.

      Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in physics that says among other things you can’t interact with or measure something without altering it ( e.g. a thermometer has to steal some of the heat it is reading ) also applies to a lot of other things. All news at some point is condensed , distilled down , editted , and cut to fit before it’s presented. That’s the journalistic process at work , But it’s not bias or censorship. Very very few ordinary citizens can discern the difference between editting, biasing, and censoring these days.

  4. I’ve read too many misleading stories covering subjects with which I was familiar to fully trust in noozepapers. I’ve found that using my own brain gives me a better notion of what is truly going on locally, or around the world.

    1. A blind trust in the veracity of the reporting in a small town rag can be equally dangerous. Our local weekly (the News Letter Journal) is as good an example as any of the problems that can and do arise as a result of the symbiotic (sometimes parasitic) relationship between advertisers and conventional print media outlets. The overwhelming bulk of ink on any page of the NLJ is devoted to the hawking of local wares, not local news. As a general rule, any controversial issues in Newcastle seem to be avoided like the plague, and as we all know all too well, potential conflicts of interest are often unavoidable, and by nature or by necessity are always rife in small towns. I’m not saying that it is in a community ‘s best interest to air every scrap of dirty laundry, but if something is filthy I believe it should get a good running through the wringer even if it risks agitating the loyal customers as well. Too often what passes for journalism around here is a heaping helpin’ of front page feel good quilting bee coverage brought to you by your hometown purveyor of fine and affordable crisp clean line ns. Pretty pieces neatly stitched together. Far from the real article. Far from the unbiased truth.

  5. Your first sentence in the article is worded wrong. You meant to say, “Media TRUST in America has sunk to alarming lows.” Anyway, the problem could be relieved if the public thought you were trying to tell both sides of a story. Instead, you twist everything to advocate changing everything about America.

  6. Unfortunately, too often the perception of bias is nothing more than the refusal or inability to acknowledge the (hard) truth.