The 32 Percent Project: How Citizens Define Trust and How Journalists Can Earn It

The University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication established the Agora Journalism Center in 2014 to drive transformational advancements in journalism and communication to enhance public knowledge, and to enrich civic life for all community members. We care about the future of journalism because it is linked to the future of a healthy democracy. And we believe the future of journalism depends on journalists finding new and better ways to engage with the publics they serve. 

We support a variety of projects to advance these goals, including an Agora Faculty Fellowship program. Agora Faculty Fellows undertake a range of projects that help point the way forward in research, teaching and practice to connect journalism and civic engagement.

In this report, our colleagues Lisa Heyamoto and Todd Milbourn explore the roots of the public’s declining trust in media. They use engaged journalism techniques to listen deeply to diverse voices in four communities around the United States, exploring not just what hinders trust, but what might be done to help it. The 32 Percent Project spans geographic, urban/rural, racial, economic and political divides, and gathers input not just from avid news consumers but also from many people who don’t consume the news at all or opted out long ago. Importantly, it gets people to step outside of their knee-jerk responses to media by exploring through conversation how trust operates in peoples’ personal and professional lives.

Heyamoto and Milbourn find that people apply some of the same standards from their relationships with others in their lives to their relationship with the news. People demand that the news earn their trust with authenticity, transparency and real diversity. They want news that is consistently presented and focused on what’s working as well as what isn’t. They hunger for news that reflects a sense of community.

The comments arising from these community conversations don’t always fit within news insiders’ understandings of what journalism is and how it should function. Reflecting what Benjamin Toff and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen have described as “folk theories of news,” only some of the public’s beliefs about media and information fit easily with journalistic concepts of objectivity, neutrality and the like. Rather than demanding that journalists remain at a cool remove, many participants in these conversations said they want news that digs into the complex realities of their communities with both a critical eye and a shared sense of mission. In other words, they want news to be relational, not transactional. At the same time, this report reveals how little some members of the public may understand about how the daily news is produced—a fact that calls out for more transparency about journalists’ methods, constraints and professional commitments.

We think these insights — and the recommendations the authors offer —could not come at a more opportune time, as the news industry struggles to adapt to a rapidly changing technological, social and political environment, and a public that is far less inclined to accept news at face value.

We welcome your thoughts on the future of news and the developments outlined in this second Agora Report.

— Regina G. Lawrence, Executive Director, Agora Journalism Center
— Andrew DeVigal, Associate Director, Agora Journalism Center