Grumet: Feeling frustrated with the media? Switch off cable TV and turn to local news

Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt talks to reporters Wednesday after the Austin City Council voted to approve a Major League Soccer stadium deal. Local media cover many of the issues most likely to affect residents’ everyday lives. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Today the American-Statesman’s editorial board joined hundreds of newspapers around the country in standing up for the importance of a free press, particularly as President Donald Trump continues his dangerous rhetoric against journalists. While Trump’s cries of “fake news” ring hollow against the well-sourced reporting about his administration, however, there’s no denying the media sometimes suffers from a troubling credibility gap with the public.

A Gallup poll last year found just over a third of Americans (37 percent) believe news organizations “get the facts straight.” That’s a depressingly low metric for people in my industry, and one I think grossly underestimates the painstaking work journalists do everyday. Yes, reporters sometimes make mistakes. But most traditional news organizations strive to correct the record quickly and with transparency.

Part of the problem, of course, is the catchall nature of “the media,” a term that includes everything from local newspapers to the New York Times and the Washington Post, local television affiliates and 24-hour cable news, online news outlets and blogs, not to mention the hodgepodge of information showing up in people’s Facebook feeds.

I reached out this week to Kathleen McElroy, the new director of the journalism school at the University of Texas, and she suspects much of the consternation revolves around 24-hour cable news, which offers a mix of news and political commentary, largely around hot-button national issues. Her advice to people growing disillusioned with media coverage? Turn your focus to local news coverage.

“Very little of what’s newsy is what’s happening on cable,” said McElroy, who worked at the Statesman in the late 1980s and later became an editor at the New York Times. “How much of what you’re consuming is national politics? If you’re consuming only national politics, maybe it’s time to think about your school board, your city council, your planning board, what’s going on in the churches in your area.”

Indeed, many of the issues most likely to affect your everyday life — your commute, the conditions at your kid’s school, what you’re paying in taxes and getting in services, even this new-fangled Major League Soccer stadium you might have heard about — are local topics covered by your friendly neighborhood newspaper.

“People cannot go to a 12-hour City Council meeting in Austin,” McElroy told me. “They can try to read CodeNext on their own, when that was still viable, but good luck on that. How much information do you need from neutral, professional sources? I think it’s a lot more than people think. Whether it’s a restaurant review or reading about the classification ratings that are coming out in schools or about the (California) wildfires, that’s information that goes beyond what’s going on in Washington.”

While we’re talking about neutral, professional sources, please bookmark PolitiFact.com/Texas, the truth-squading project spearheaded by the Austin American-Statesman, in collaboration with the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. Their rigorous work seeks to verify or debunk various statements made by local and state officials, and they post links to all their backup materials so you can check the math yourself. They’re even tracking how Gov. Greg Abbott and Austin Mayor Steve Adler are faring on their campaign promises.

You can also see how the Austin City Council has voted on dozens of issues, including the ones you’re most interested in, at the Statesman’s wonderful VoteTracker project. The database goes all the way back to the start of the 10-1 council in January 2015. Spend some time with it to see what your district rep has been up to. It’s worth knowing before heading to the polls this fall.

Please support the work of the Statesman and other local news outlets that work tirelessly to cover Austin news. We all have a stake in keeping this community strong.