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The Trust

Restoring the Trust
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The Audience Can Save Quality Journalism,
If Asked to Help

Leonard Witt, Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communications, Kennesaw State University

As I said earlier, we all know that trust in journalism is at an all-time low, although this year the State of the News Media 2005 said that the expectations from the media have stabilized. But then they add that it may be that expectations from the press have sunk enough that they will not sink any further. People are not dismayed by disappointments in the press; they expect them.
A few years ago when the Freedom Forum put out its Best Practices book for newspaper journalists, it addressed trust issues by posing a series of statements it had learned from talking to the public. The public said newspapers were unfair when they get the facts wrong and they refuse to admit errors. When they don’t name names in anonymous sources. When they have ignorant or incompetent reporters. When they prey on the weak and they concentrate on bad news. When they lack diversity. When they allow editorial bias in news stories and they can’t admit that sometimes there’s just no story.
Of course all these issues are important and they actually are fundamental to trust and quality, but for newsrooms, or for us to deal just solely with this (and that was my original intent when I was thinking of this conference) would be like trying to fine-tune the fiddle while Rome was burning. Newsrooms are besieged by corporate ownership woes, there’s rampant criticism from the left and the right, and when it comes to coverage of the minority communities, Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte said, “The mass news media practice censorship by omission.”
Today ethnic communities, though, are getting their own place in the media world. They are now part of the competition for the mass media. On almost all fronts, news circulation and viewership are declining; few youth get their news from traditional news sources; entrepreneurs are giving away free newspapers; new cable channels spread audiences thinner and thinner; and classified ads are being eroded by the likes of Craigslist, whose founder, Craig Newmark, is with us. . .
Phil Meyer, author of “The Vanishing Newspaper” and who gave me the idea for the Wake-Up Call, even talks of a death spiral. And more than a year ago, Jay Rosen, another of our speakers, told an audience at the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland, that the age of the mass media is just that, an age, and that it doesn’t have to last forever. This year, in preparing notes for another speech, Rosen wrote, “Each nation will shortly have a chance to re-establish, or overhaul, its own press or to create a new one. And that’s a moment for careful thought.” And in the same vein, the State of the Media report for 2005, after listing its litany of news media woes, writes, “Somehow journalism needs to prove that it’s acting on behalf of the public, if it is to save itself.”
I would argue, though, that there really is help. And it’s everywhere, if journalists are willing to accept it. It’s in the form of audiences themselves. It’s presenting itself in the form of weblogs, videologs, podcasts, none of which are going away. In his excellent article in this month’s (August, 2005) Wired, Kevin Kelly, in a retrospective of the last ten years, writes, “In fewer than four thousand days, we have encoded a trillion versions of our collective story and put them in front of one billion people, or one-sixth of the world’s population. That remarkable achievement wasn’t in anyone’s ten-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, tax guides, road maps, stock quotes, telephone numbers, etc, etc.”
And what about the trust in all of these things? About eBay, he writes, “We have an open global flea market that handles 1.4 billion auctions each 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 insuring fairness is a system of user-generated ratings. Three billion feedback comments can work wonders.” Then he adds, “What we 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 ten-year plan.”
And of course he mentions weblogs. “No web phenomena,” he says, “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 the reach of amateurs. Blogs and other participant media would never happen, or, if they would happen, it would not draw an audience. Or if they drew an audience, that audience would not matter. What a shock, then, to witness the instantaneous rise of 50 million blogs, with a new one appearing every two seconds.”
Why, I ask, would we as journalists, as 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—ten years from now—help us do so much of our thinking that, if we are cut off from it, will be almost like having a lobotomy.
Why don’t journalists accept what’s happening? I’d say 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, which many of the people in this room have been thinking about and talking about, have told us that most journalists don’t relate very well to the public.
Fortunately some journalists and some citizens do get it. Some of them are in the room here today. You’ll hear from them. What better way to establish trust and quality than to make the public a part of what we do? Or better yet, make ourselves, as part of the media, be part of what the public is doing and be part of that bigger brain. Why not become an indispensable link built on trust and quality? And then perhaps, by heeding the State of the News Media 2005’s advice, journalism will, by acting on behalf of the public, save itself.

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