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August 08, 2005

Gain Journalism Trust by Building Links to Public

Here are my planned comments for the opening of the Wake Up Call: Can Trust and Quality Save Journalism? conference tomorrow:

First, here is the key point:

What better way to establish trust and quality than to make the public part of what you do. Or better yet make yourself part of what they are doing...Become an indispensable link built on trust and quality.

The full notes:

The impetus for the Journalism and the Public: Restoring the Trust project, of which this conference is a part, was the CBS/Dan Rather firestorm of criticism and the September, 2004, Gallup Poll which reported, “the news media’s credibility has declined significantly, with just 44 percent of Americans expressing confidence in the media’s ability to report news stories accurately and fairly,” representing a 10 percent drop from year before and the worst level in 30 years.

The Gallup Poll re-enforced the “State of the Media 2004” report, published by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which stated, “Public attitudes about the press have been declining for nearly 20 years. Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes and generally more harmful to democracy than they did in the 1980s.” It continues, however: “Journalists believe they are working in the public interest and are trying to be fair and independent in that cause. This is their sense of professionalism.” There was and is an apparent disconnect here.

In this project we want to help determine why the disconnect exists and to help journalists at least consider it—and if necessary, to begin to make changes. However, even in the best of conditions, change is a slow process and it will not begin by itself. It needs catalysts for action and this project is designed to be one of those catalysts. With proper presentation, we believe journalists and journalism teachers can see which changes would be beneficial to them, their profession, and the general public.

Some questions that might help guide us today are:

·Is the mainstream media in a death spiral?
·Can improving editorial quality and trust save it?
·If not, where will we be able to turn to find high quality and trustworthy news and information?
·Is the salvation in citizen, community, and niche journalism?
·What does all this mean to individual journalists, journalism educators and the public?

Although the trust decline has stabilized this year, “It may be,” the State of the News Media 2005, says, “that the expectations of the press have sunk enough that they will not sink much further. People are not dismayed by disappointments in the press. They expect them”

A few years ago when the Freedom Forum published its Best Practices book for newspaper journalists it addressed trust issues by posing a series of statements it learned from talking to the public. Newspapers are unfair when:

·They get the facts wrong and they refuse to admit errors

·They won’t name names (as in anonymous sources)

·They have ignorant or incompetent reporters

·They prey on the weak and they concentrate on bad news

·They lack diversity

·They allow editorial bias in news stories

·They can’t admit that sometimes there’s no story

Of course, all these issues are important, fundamental to trust and quality, but for newsrooms or for us to just deal solely with them would be like fine tuning the fiddle while Rome is burning.

Newsrooms are besieged by corporate ownership woes. There is rampant criticism from the left and right. When it came to coverage of minority communities, Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte said, the mass news media practiced “censorship by omission.” Today ethnic publications are part of the competition. On almost all fronts, news circulation and viewership is declining. Few youth get their news from traditional sources. Entrepreneurs are giving away free newspapers, new cable channels spread audiences thinner and thinner and, classified ad revenues are being eroded by the likes of craigslist, whose founder Craig Newmark, is here today. Indeed, Phil Meyer, author of The Vanishing Newspaper, who gave me the idea for the name A Wake Up Call, even talks of a news death spiral, and more than a year ago another of our speakers, Jay Rosen, told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that, “The age of the mass media is just that – an age. It doesn’t have to last forever.”

This year in preparing notes for a speech in Australia Rosen wrote, “each nation will shortly have a chance to re-establish or overhaul its own press. Or to create one anew. And that is a moment for careful thought.”

In the same vein, The State of the News Media Report 2005, after listing its own litany of news media woes, writes, “Somehow journalism needs to prove that it is acting on behalf of the public, if it is to save itself.”

I would argue the help is there, really it's everywhere, if the journalists are willing to accept it. It is in the form of the audiences themselves. It’s presenting itself in the form of weblogs, video logs, and podcasts. None of which are going away.

Indeed in his excellent article in this month’s WIRED Kevin Kelly writes:

In fewer than 4,000 days, we have encoded half a trillion versions of our collective story and put them in front of 1 billion people, or one-sixth of the world's population. That remarkable achievement was not in anyone's 10-year plan. … Today, at any Net terminal, you can get: an amazing variety of music and video, an evolving encyclopedia, weather forecasts, help wanted ads, satellite images of anyplace on Earth, up-to-the-minute news from around the globe, tax forms, TV guides, road maps with driving directions, real-time stock quotes, telephone numbers, real estate listings with virtual walk-throughs, pictures of just about anything, sports scores, places to buy almost anything, records of political contributions, library catalogs, appliance manuals, live traffic reports, archives to major newspapers - all wrapped up in an interactive index that really works.

And what about trust in all of this, of eBay Kelly writes:

we have an open global flea market that handles 1.4 billion auctions every year and operates from your bedroom. Users do most of the work; they photograph, catalog, post, and manage their own auctions. And they police themselves; while eBay and other auction sites do call in the authorities to arrest serial abusers, the chief method of ensuring fairness is a system of user-generated ratings. Three billion feedback comments can work wonders.

Then he adds:

What we all failed to see was how much of this new world would be manufactured by users, not corporate interests…. This bottom-up takeover was not in anyone's 10-year vision.

Then of course he mentions weblogs:

“No Web phenomenon,” he writes “ is more confounding than blogging. Everything media experts knew about audiences - and they knew a lot - confirmed the focus group belief that audiences would never get off their butts and start making their own entertainment. Everyone knew writing and reading were dead; music was too much trouble to make when you could sit back and listen; video production was simply out of reach of amateurs. Blogs and other participant media would never happen, or if they happened they would not draw an audience, or if they drew an audience they would not matter. What a shock, then, to witness the near-instantaneous rise of 50 million blogs, with a new one appearing every two seconds.”

Why, I ask, would we as journalists, journalism professors and members of the news media in general turn our back on this public power? This bigger brain, that Kelly persuasively argues, will, by the year 2015, help us do so much of our thinking that if users are cut from it, it will feel as if they have had lobotomies. Why don’t more journalists accept what is happening?

Part of the reason is attitude. Newsrooms, a Readership Institute study tells us, operate largely in an aggressive/defensive mode. Not a great formula for welcoming change. They are grounded in tradition and big institutions simply don’t change easily. Years of public journalism experience have told us that most journalists don’t relate well to the public.

Fortunately, some journalists and many citizens get it. Some of them are here today. You will hear from them. What better way to establish trust and quality than to be make the public part of what you do. Or better yet make yourself part of what they are doing, be part of the bigger brain. Become an indispensable link built on trust and quality. And perhaps, by heeding the State of the News Media 2005 advice, journalism will, by acting on behalf of the public, save itself.

Posted by Leonard Witt at August 8, 2005 05:30 PM