Aside from covering our everyday news beat for the Record, as student journalists, we also came to San Juan County to ask residents about their honest opinions of the news media:
“I’m going to be nice… no, I’m not going to be nice.”
Nicole Perkins, a librarian and resident of Blanding, echoed what we heard from many people we interviewed in our two weeks here.
“You watch the national news and you sit here from home and you think, ‘What? Where did they get that?’ We have been so villainized in the media,” she said.
The frustrations Perkins and many of her neighbors feel are part of a trend seen nationwide. A 2017 Gallup poll found trust in news media hit a record low last year, with only one third of Americans expressing a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in mass media.
“Unfortunately, I have lost almost all faith in the media nowadays, just because to me it just seems like the media is only interested in what sells,” said Kim Henderson, a Monticello resident and member of the Stewards of San Juan County.
“We know that everyone has their hidden agenda and I think that sometimes like in the media not everything is reported and there is a lot of disconnect because of that,” Charlotta Lacy, a member of the Navajo tribe added.
Often times, this distrust in the media came from what many saw as a political slant in reporter’s stories.
“I know how the media works, and it’s a very liberal media,” said current County Commissioner Phil Lyman.
In other instances, residents were quick to comment on the lack of understanding on the part of larger news outlets when covering this small, yet complex community.
“My frustration is being lumped in with everybody else and people really not taking the time to understand those of us that live in this area,” said Steve Simpson of the Twin Rocks Trading Post.
Part of this discrepancy, some believe, comes from the pressure of the news cycle.
“I’m very suspicious of most articles. It’s done too quick and dirty,” Janet Wilcox, Blanding resident and editor of the Beyond the Bears Ears blog, said. “Making a deadline, you know how it is, you’ve got to get your story in, and they don’t care if the story is not complete, unfortunately.”
“Usually everything in San Juan County is covered wrong,” echoed Lori Maughan, a candidate for school district seat district one. “I think that once we sit down and you talk about those issues, then you realize that there are two sides to every story,” she said.
The vast majority of the nation still believes the media play an essential role in keeping the government accountable. According to a 2018 Gallup/Knight poll, more than 80 percent of U.S. adults believe news media is still critical to democracy. And yet, only 44 percent say the news media are doing a good job of that.
In San Juan County, many residents gave examples of news outlets they still use to stay informed - from local papers to well-known media companies like Fox News and MSNBC.
Bruce Adams, rancher and incumbent candidate for the district one county commissioner race, cited social media and television reports as his source for daily news.
Others, such as county attorney Kendall Laws, found that gauging a variety of outlets was best to develop an opinion- although watching daily broadcasts wasn’t a part of his routine.
“If I’m home, I don’t really wanna watch the news. I have a pretty good grasp on how crappy things are,” Laws joked.
Vaughan Hadenfeldt, tour guide and owner of the Bluff-based Far Out Expeditions, also recognized the personal responsibility faced by consumers of media.
“We have to do it ourselves a lot, too” he said. “You know, if you think you can get your news from YouTube, then you’re really clueless.”
Even though many say they don’t completely trust what they’re reading, they recognize how influential media can be.
In our interviews, we asked what people saw as solutions to the growing schism between news media and the public’s trust. Several people had ideas on how to bridge the divide. Greater diversity in reporting, for example.
“They need more Native Americans in those areas,” Melinda Blackhorse said.
A 2016 survey by the American Society of News Editors reports that minority journalists comprised only 17 percent of those hired by the 700 media outlets studied nationwide.
Blackhorse, who works for the Utah Navajo Trust, believes that a solution to accurately covering native communities is to increase the number of native reporters.
“I’m sure we have Native American journalists out there. They need to hire them...everything needs to be fair,” she said.
In general, many interviewees expressed a desire for truthful journalism - something they believe has been missing from their papers, broadcasts, and phones.
“Tell the truth,” Adams said. “Just tell the truth. Listen to people’s hearts. Tell the story the way you heard it. Don’t try to make it look like somebody said one thing when they really said something completely different.”
The necessity for change in how the news is covered was clearly articulated to us by the residents of San Juan County. We found that many people in this rural region feels as though no one is listening to their side of the story, as Nicole Perkins reminds us:
“People are just turning away from your major national news sources in rural areas more and more because they know what is being told is false due to their own experiences.”
A number of major news outlets are responding to those complaints, sending more reporters into rural areas. Sarah Smarsh, a freelance reporter who grew up in Kansas and focuses on rural areas, has this tip for other journalists.
“These places and human beings, believe it or not, exist outside of politics,” Smarsh said. “Often coastal reporting on rural areas takes every aspect of the human experience and puts it through a political blender.
“I think that’s dangerous in a few ways, the most important being that it contributes to a kind of general dehumanization of a place that is easily viewed, in urban and coastal centers, as sort of an inconvenient and unfortunate bummer that it needs to be dealt with in the context of the outcomes of national elections.”