Journalists can regain public’s trust by reaffirming basic values

Image: AP

Wide swaths of the country, both geographically and demographically, don’t believe us. They see us as tools of some amorphous establishment, and have turned for their news of the world to alternate channels, to put it politely.

To them, “corporate media” is of a piece with government insiders and self-dealers who, to paraphrase the tagline of one of this year’s attack ads, make government work…for them.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that these folks are only angry white people on the right. There are plenty of young people and people of color who don’t connect to journalism as we’ve done it. Many supporters of Bernie Sanders felt “the media” lined up with the Democratic Party to assure Hillary Clinton the nomination. That kind of suspicion dies hard.

In Flint, Mich., a largely African-American community where lead got into the water supply as a result of apparent government malfeasance, there was a skeptical view of national news sources that now seems justifiable. That view can be boiled down to, “Where have you been?”

A lot of the country could rightly ask us that, as well. The University of North Carolina describes the rise of what it calls “news deserts,” communities left with no effective local news source as a result of the destruction of local newsrooms, according to the author, Penny Muse Abernathy. (Disclosure: she was a trusted colleague when we both worked at The New York Times.)

In general, the coverage of local communities and state government has been most severely damaged by the disruption of our industry. The gridlock in Washington has increased the importance of state government even as the number of journalists covering state government has plunged. 

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We have the power to actually introduce Americans from different backgrounds and points of view to each other. We can, in the popular phrase, be a convener of important conversations.

 

That’s just one example of the link between our journalistic crisis and the democratic challenge the country is struggling through. The glue holding us together as a country has become unstuck. I wrote a book about that 10 years ago and I wish I could say things have improved. They haven’t.

Mistrust is deeper. Estrangement is greater.

Journalism is only one part of the problem. But it can and in my view should be part of the solution. We can help provide the country with a common basis of facts and a common vocabulary to discuss our challenges. We have the power to actually introduce Americans from different backgrounds and points of view to each other. We can, in the popular phrase, be a convener of important conversations.

We can shape our actions around the great Pat Moynihan’s old saw that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but they aren’t entitled to their own facts. We can be the independent and fair-minded providers of the facts a country needs to make democratic choices. 

But to be credible at this we must first establish trust. We have to fight off the idea that we serve sections or segments of the public. Or that we have a partisan interest in the outcome. We need to be open and available to everyone. We need to replace anger with empathy and strife with reason. “Nichefication” may strengthen the business prospects of news companies, but it weakens their ability to serve the public.

How to get from where we are to where the country needs us to be is the conversation we might have been having this election year. But it wasn’t. Instead, we argued about how to characterize a truth-challenged candidate or whether it was our job to stop authoritarianism when we saw it.

 

The challenge isn’t to lecture them. The challenge is to engage them across the spectrum of views and backgrounds. Making our journalism sound more opinionated won’t help. It places the emphasis in the wrong place.

 

Behind the questions was a premise that the answers mattered. That they might change the course of the election.

That missed the larger point. For our views to matter to the public —  which is broad, diverse and skeptical — the public needs to believe in us.

The challenge isn’t to lecture them. The challenge is to engage them across the spectrum of views and backgrounds. Making our journalism sound more opinionated won’t help. It places the emphasis in the wrong place.

To build, or rebuild, bonds of trust we need to be a lot more thoughtful about what political journalism needs to look like. But you can’t can do that in the heat of an election. You can’t, in fact, do it around political journalism at all, at least not national political journalism. We have to be there the rest of the time, too. That means stronger roots in communities, both geographically and in terms of affinities. To rebuild trust, we have to start showing up in communities where we haven’t been much seen in recent years.

Listening will help. Younger news audiences also demand greater transparency and independence. We need to respond to all that.

But we also should reaffirm that some of our most basic values remain not only sound but central to why what we do is distinctive and vital to a healthy democracy. Fairness remains fundamental. So do accuracy and a commitment to reporting (it is the reporting that lets you decide what to think about the candidate).

Fear is a bad motive for changing long-standing practice. Panic is worse and political pressure from a like-minded audience is the most corrosive of all. But that’s what a lot of this year’s debate about journalism felt like.

All those heated tweets about how Trump required us to cut down the old rules of journalism struck me very much like that conversation between Thomas More and William Roper in that great moral parable, A Man for All Seasons.

Roper wants to know why More won’t just fulfill the king’s wishes. The law prevents him, More says, and the law is our protection.

“So you’d give the laws protection even to the devil?” Roper asks.

“Yes!” More replies. “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”

“Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!” Roper replies

“Oh?” More says, mustering the moment, “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

Standards and practices define and distinguish us. They are what make journalism journalism. Without them we are just content and opinion and we would quickly vanish in the mix.  Losing journalism would be a long-range disaster for the country, worse than anything imagined out of this election.

This year’s presidential campaign has provided a great opportunity to show how important we can be. Independent, fair-minded journalism is desperately needed. We need to find out how to rebuild it everywhere. That’s something we can ask the public to believe in.

We did not have that conversation during the election.  We need to have it now.

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Michael Oreskes is head of NPR News. He was national political correspondent and Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, among other posts, and is co-author of The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country and Why It Can Again. Oreskes sits on the Board of Overseers for CJR.