Every day, we work with journalists who try very hard to seek and report the truth, open our eyes to both good and bad news, and shine a light on topics and information we would never otherwise encounter.
I cannot imagine a world without trust in news, but I’m afraid I’m living in that very world.
Consider a recent study that shows 92 percent of Republicans, 79 percent of independents and 53 percent of Democrats believe “traditional news outlets knowingly report false or misleading stories at least sometimes.”
While I have certainly been frustrated by the results of stories I’ve worked on with journalists, or disappointed when I felt a story didn’t show a side of an issue I wish had been highlighted, I cannot think of one time where I thought a media professional went out of his or her way to report something that was misleading or false.
Recently, I had a conversation with a family member about journalism that impacted me deeply. Knowing the field I work in, this family member asked my opinion on fake news. She said she was close to canceling her subscription to the local newspaper because she felt it was so one-sided and added that she rarely watches television news because of how misleading it feels.
I was taken aback. The newspaper she referred to recently won an Edward R. Murrow Award, one of the most prestigious awards in journalism, for a video series it produced. The two of us had bonded over this series because it was raw, emotional and showed the vast impacts of opioid abuse on a city.
She agreed the series was good reporting. When I dug deeper into her feelings about news, I realized her frustration was with political reporting almost entirely.
I’m not one to take sides or showcase my politics, but I do want to defend a profession I have profound respect for.
I can’t help but think my family member’s emotions about news were directly related to the lack of inside access to the journalistic process. I wish I had realized this during our conversation because I think seeing is believing.
I have sat in on television news editorial meetings where a team of reporters, producers and news directors pitch stories, talk through the impact on viewers, discuss sources and talk about fact checking. My team has worked with magazine reporters who have spent months reporting on stories and worked with fact checkers when those stories were turned in. My clients have sat with the editorial board at a daily newspaper when we felt coverage of an issue didn’t show all sides of the story and walked these news professionals through our point of view.
The process is the part of local news, of journalism, that I wish more people understood.
I often have the opportunity to train people on working with media. In the weeks since the conversation I had with my family member, I have thought about how I might have used this training to help her understand what journalism is and does. I would have encouraged her to sit down with her newspaper and think about the newsworthy elements at work in each story. A story about a new baby animal at the zoo? Human interest. A story about the impact of homelessness on local businesses? Community impact and conflict.
I’d also encourage her to do her best when watching a television broadcast to separate opinion from fact. It may be easy to identify opinion on cable networks like CNN and Fox News, but I’ve learned it can be much more difficult on shows like the Today Show or Good Morning America when coverage gets political. When Savannah Guthrie interviews two experts with opposing viewpoints on the current administration, Savannah is acting as a journalist by asking tough questions and pushing for answers. However, the two experts are sharing opinions that are shaded by their worldview. They have a right to share those opinions, but we do not have the right to consider them journalists.
We have so many different ways to gather information. While this provides a lot of personal empowerment through choice, we can also only choose to view read or listen to things that align with what we think we already know. There was an interesting research study done on reason and choice several years ago. The researchers found that “strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding.” In fact, our opinions tend to be stronger the less we know about an issue.
I like to apply this thinking to our understanding of journalism. The less we know about the process, the more likely we are to call it unreliable, unfair or worse.
For so long, we have taken for granted the role journalists play in democracy. And over time, it seems news outlets forgot how important it was to invite us into their process. Now, we see the impact of those closed doors in conversations big and small – from the words of the president saying journalists are the enemy of the people, to the lack of trust my family member has in local news.
Today, hundreds of newspapers and some radio and television outlets across the country have joined an effort organized by The Boston Globe to publish editorials on the dangers of the assault on a free press. Every outlet has a different take. Consider this one from The Denver Post and this from The New York Times.
I hope this isn’t the last time we see news outlets across the country speak to us directly about the role they play in our local communities. In fact, I hope to see more open conversations with readers and viewers about the journalistic process. For those of you who don’t have the opportunity to witness and participate in the journalistic process like I do, I would like to share a few resources that may help you understand it better. The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics that members agree to abide by. The Radio Television Digital News Association has more than 40 coverage guidelines designed to help broadcast and digital journalists in both common and uncommon situations. There are also several media outlets who have signed on to the Trusting News Project, an effort to help newsrooms and journalists rebuild trust through transparency.
I plan to share this blog with my family member, and I hope it leads to more conversation. I think today’s NY Times piece said it best – “Criticizing the news media — for underplaying or overplaying stories, for getting something wrong — is entirely right. News reporters and editors are human, and make mistakes. Correcting them is core to our job. But insisting that truths you don’t like are “fake news” is dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy. And calling journalists the “enemy of the people” is dangerous, period.”
Journalists are an essential part of my world, and I hope today is just the first step forward in making it an essential part of your world too.