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3 tips for building trust with rural communities

Recognize your role as a member of “the media,” lean into complexity and nuance, and get to know the people you aim to serve.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. 

This piece features tips from Joy Mayer of Trusting News, in addition to the work of Sarah Nagem, editor, Border Belt Independent; Hadley Hitson, reporter, Montgomery Advertiser; and Danny McArthur, reporter, Gulf States Newsroom. Border Belt Independent and the Montgomery Advertiser participated in the UNC Table Stakes program in 2021-22.

Trusting News studies how people decide what news to trust and trains journalists to demonstrate credibility. They focus on listening with humility, engaging with the community and building into the journalism transparency around news processes, coverage goals and journalism ethics.

When journalists — especially those who live in towns and cities — cover rural communities, they have specific challenges to navigate. As with any community that is new to them, they need to understand some cultural norms and pitfalls. They also are often met with questions — and high levels of suspicion — about their basic goals and integrity.

In April 2023, we invited three journalists who serve rural communities to speak to alumni of the Table Stakes Local News Transformation Program. The discussion was moderated by Joy Mayer of Trusting News and featured:

  • Sarah Nagem, editor, Border Belt Independent
  • Hadley Hitson, reporter, Montgomery Advertiser
  • Danny McArthur, reporter, Gulf States Newsroom

You can watch a recording of the panel discussion above, or listen to a podcast version below.

Here are three key things to keep in mind if you’re looking to better serve rural communities:

Recognize your role

You are part of “the media,” even if you work for a local news organization.

Oftentimes, people don’t differentiate among news organizations. So you might be coming into a community where people have interacted only with journalists during times of tragedy, which has made them distrustful — or even hurt — by the media.

“It’s very important for me that they know that I’m not coming at it with an agenda,” Danny McArthur said during the panel. “I think there can be the thought that the media only wants to tell a certain kind of story, and that story isn’t necessarily going to be their story.”

Additionally, journalists as a whole do not necessarily reflect the backgrounds or perspectives of people living in rural areas. Journalists are whiter, more educated and more likely to live in liberal places than the population overall. They are also less likely to have served in the military or to attend worship services regularly. Their biases will show up in their work.

Stop overgeneralizing

Rural communities — like all communities — are nuanced and complex. Humans have a tendency to lump people together when our understanding of them is unsophisticated.

In her work at The Montgomery Advertiser, Hadley Hitson strives to put people’s stories first. “If we were going to make readers across the South see rural Alabamians as anything other than the stereotype in their minds, we had to show them the complex stories of real people,” she and Executive Editor Paige Oliver Windsor wrote in a recent Better News piece.

Listen to the people you aim to serve

You must spend time in the communities you’re looking to serve. Conduct regular interviews and listening sessions. Ask people what they’re looking for, what they’re frustrated by and how you could better reflect their lives and values.

Sarah Nagem moved to Robeson County, N.C., for a year so that she could really get to know one of the counties The Border Belt Independent serves.

“Like anywhere, relationships and trust matter, but it’s even more so in rural areas because people know each other and their families,” Sarah and Founder and Publisher Les High wrote in a Better News piece. “Accountability is high because you’ll probably see the subjects of your stories in the grocery store or at the ballfield. If you get something wrong, people here have long memories.”