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Final report home page
Expanding The Definition
of News Media Trust
Jay Rosen, New
York University, Author of the blog PressThink
I imagine back in the prehistoric ages, a journalist was the only
one willing to go into the dark cave and come back out and tell everyone
what it looks like back in there.
Jay Rosen: Most discussions of trust and the press proceed from the same story, and what I want to do is lay out this story, which is sort of a standard narrative, and then see if we can generate alternatives to it.
In the standard story that we hear, we find trust in the media declining and we look at poll numbers that show that, and we briefly ask, well, why would this be and we go down our list of factors and one of the factors is the recent spate of scandals like Jayson Blair and Dan Rather and other high-profile screw-ups, which must have done something to trust. And then we cite the fragmenting of the marketplace and the way that that is breaking apart the media empires of old, and that’s fracturing trust. We talk about the loss of energy and initiative to bloggers, who are kind of nipping at the heels of the mass media. And we mention how criticism from the left and the right keeps rising, and that’s doing something to trust. And therefore, people in journalism are worried and they don’t really know what to do about it, but they’re trying to reconnect with their communities, and that’s the story. I’ve heard it hundreds of times.
That captures a certain portion of the situation, and it’s not wrong, it’s not incorrect. It’s just limited. What I would like to do is put that to one side and open up this question: What do you know about trust in journalism that took you a while to learn and that maybe other people don’t know? What do you know about trust in journalism that took you some time to learn and is maybe a result of the privilege of your experience, which other people haven’t had?
Charles Lewis, Center for Public Integrity, (A nonprofit doing investigative reporting)
Going Around the Mainstream Media Gatekeepers To Get the Untold Story
Charles Lewis: I think that a lot of things that should be covered for ordinary citizens are not being covered, haven’t been covered for decades, and the way to either build trust…is to present information about subjects that affect people’s daily lives in an unvarnished, no-holds-barred way that names names and lays out information that is relevant to their daily lives to the best you can, and document it to the extent that you can, and that’s what we’ve tried to do in 300 reports and 14 books at the Center.
The Center wasn’t started as any kind of highfalutin’ alternative. I couldn’t get certain things on the air at 60 Minutes, and it was getting on my nerves. And I wanted to work somewhere where I could do it. The old A. J. Leibling comment that the only free press may be the one you own is a great quote, and with a non-profit, you don’t own it but it’s still fun, and so, Lincoln bedroom scandal with Clinton, posting that Enron was Bush’s top contributor, posting the Patriot II Act when the administration said it didn’t exist for six months, all the Iraq contracts, first disclosing Halliburton was the top contractor in Iraq for the world—those were things that the mainstream media did not cover. You could go to the Center site and see the actual contracts.
And that’s an important advantage of the web. You can actually link to documents. With computer-assisted reporting you can go through millions of records, you can do searchable databases of who owns the media within ten or twenty miles of your house by entering your zip code—there are just spectacular things you can do that you couldn’t do five, seven, ten years ago…
Getting back to the question. . . I imagine back in the prehistoric ages, a journalist was the only one willing to go into the dark cave and come back out and tell everyone what it looks like back in there. You’ve got the inside skinny that is maybe interesting to the rest of the village, however big you define that village. And to me, it’s not a whole lot more complicated. I’m not trying to say it has all the answers, but that’s been my M.O. and I’m going to keep doing it at the Center.
Jay Rosen: Okay. Let me underline two things. One is, you said you wanted your own printing press—that’s why you started the Center. Fifteen years later, bloggers come along. It’s a lot easier for them to have their own printing press, but it was the same motivation, right? And second, when you say trust follows from getting the inside story, it reminds me of a very important incident that erupted in Oregon when the Oregonian didn’t uncover a sexual harassment by their own senator, because they hadn’t been doing exactly what you’re saying. They were shocked at how angry people were. Not because they screwed up a story. But because they never did it. In fact, they knew something about it. It wasn’t such a secret. That’s a very direct result of exactly what you’re saying.
Neil Chase, Deputy editor, NYTimes.com
How the Mainstream Media Stopped Telling the Truth (or How Journalists Stopped Doing their Jobs)
Neil Chase: Charles, you said you started the Center because there were stories you couldn’t cover at 60 Minutes that you wanted to cover. Why couldn’t you cover them?
Charles Lewis: The suits would say they didn’t need to be covered. Just go rent the Insider movie—that sums it up. Although I actually did do a story on tobacco, I was a producer for Mike Wallace. Larry Tisch, the owner of CBS, asked Mike Wallace over dinner not to broadcast it. To Mike’s credit, he said, go to hell, Larry, we’re doing it. Mike Wallace had the stature then to say that to the owner of one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, who also happened to own CBS. And we said on the air that Lawrence Tisch declined to comment. That occurred in 1988.
By the mid-90s, when Lowell Bergman tried to do a tobacco story, they were threatened with annihilation, with a multi-billion dollar lawsuit, Black Rock, the corporate part of CBS, tells Don Hewitt and the show not to proceed, and this time, they don’t stand up. And so—for that story, I could give you ten more. And they’ve never been published. But it’s understood.
Sometimes Trust Is Lost Because Of Stupid Mistakes
Jay Rosen: So there’s the first addition to our standard narrative—the press lost trust because it stopped telling the truth in a lot of ways. It just stopped.
Neil Chase: Or maybe in some cases we stopped doing our jobs. You mentioned the Oregonian thing. People just said, I want my newspaper to tell me this if it’s going on.
What have I learned about trust from my years inside newsrooms and academia? All of us know, from our time inside newsrooms that most of the screw-ups are not an intentional plot by a group of scheming editors who sit around the table and make up a plan to screw something up. They are often just stupid mistakes. Somebody didn’t raise a red flag. Somebody didn’t say, hey, wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense. Or, have we asked this question? Or you hear something at a dinner and you say, gee, that’s a story, and I’m the local newspaper, I should do that. A lot of it just comes back to doing our jobs.
And this whole discussion of trust—when we ask readers, do you trust the local newspaper, what exactly do you mean? Would you trust me if I told you there was going to be construction on your street next week that was going to disrupt your rush hour commute? Would you trust me if I told you that a member of the city council was doing something horrible with your money? Would you trust me if I told you I had some document and I couldn’t tell you where I got it from? Would you take that on faith? Would you believe a Judy Miller and just say, well, it’s the New York Times, sure, why not? Would people have felt differently about our court case ten, twenty years ago? Well, maybe.
“ Welcome to the fish bowl that is the New York Times.”
I’ve only been at the Times three months, but one of the biggest changes that’s happened at the Times in the past few years, not just because of the one, perhaps best-known change, or problem there, with stories being made up, but with all the things that have happened in all the media, is this intense effort to make things much more transparent. To say, wait a minute, what if we just show people what we’re doing? Because there shouldn’t be a lot of secrets.
I mean, when I got to the New York Times, the notice about my getting hired, the number two guy at the web site starts going around to several different web sites, and I start getting messages from people. I mentioned this to my new boss, and he said, “Welcome to the fish bowl that is the New York Times.” Everything we do here is public. Every memo from the editor about a change, including the fun ones we’re about to make with My Newsroom end up on the Poynter website and all sorts of other places because people watch what we’re doing.
And that’s great. There shouldn’t be a lot of secrets, I’ve learned in my years in journalism. We’ve got our whole ethics handbook now up on the Web—you can download the whole PDF and read it. It just seems like the huge effort to open the process up and say, wait, it’s always been a secretive thing, people trusted blindly.
Nobody trusts anything blindly. Do you trust your doctor anymore? Do you trust anybody anymore? People want more explanation, how it works. Heck, let’s give it to them.
Jay Rosen: Before transparency at the New York Times—which I think you’re absolutely right, it’s a very different world now—there was a trust system. But the thinking was, we put this product out every day, the daily edition of the New York Times. You look at it, examine it, decide whether you trust it. But we’re not going to tell you much about how it’s made because, actually, that’s not relevant. What’s relevant is the product. We put it out there for you to judge. That was a way of achieving trust. It just isn’t the world anymore. It’s not the way the world works anymore.
And so now we have a new system, which is, here’s the product—the New York Times—and you can trust it or not, but look, we’ll tell you how we made it. And, increasingly, they have to do exactly that.
It’s Not Just Us—Lack of Trust is Endemic in Today’s Society
Neil Chase: And it’s just as important to keep in mind, this is not about just journalism. Literally, it’s about medicine. It’s about your car mechanic, it’s about everything you do in your daily life. People expect more information. They have access to more information, so they’re going to use it.
Trusting Your Audience Will Help Them Trust You
Jay Rosen: Dan, I want to know, what do you know about trust that maybe other people don’t know?
Dan Gillmor, Author, “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People” and the blog Bayosphere
Dan Gillmor: The transparency question … is the change. It’s knowing that trust goes two ways, actually. If we trust the readers, the audience to help us, I think that we’ll find that they will. And that’s something that I think took me a long time to get.
How Working Outside the System Generates Coverage by the System
Jay Rosen: Okay. I want to ask now about some of your transitions in life because I think, when you change systems in journalism, you learn a lot about journalism. When you go out of a big operation and into a small one, you learn something about what a big operation is. If you go from national journalism to local, you learn something about the distortions of Washington.
So Charles, when you left professional journalism to found the Center, you had been an investigative reporter for ABC and CBS, right? And so you worked inside two of the biggest operations, and also two of the most storied in the profession. And then you were suddenly on the outside of that system, doing what you say is the same work, but from a very different social situation, from having to raise money in offices that probably started very small. So, when you shifted from your position within CBS, a giant, rich corporation, and ABC long past, to this new operation, what did you learn about doing journalism? Or what did you learn about those organizations that wouldn’t have been available to you if you hadn’t gotten off the boat?
Charles Lewis: Well, I already knew that the mainstream media, not just the networks, had a little problem with arrogance, the smugness factor. You do notice it more when you’re on the outside. My way of thinking, all the major stories of the late 80s, early 90s had been missed. The S&L story was mostly covered locally; the Iran Contra scandal, most journalists in Washington heard about it from the attorney general, Ed Meese, which is not a good sign.
Making the Transition Away from Mainstream Media
Charles Lewis: I broke a four-year contract. I walked out with a mortgage, a family, no savings, and I wouldn’t recommend it necessarily but, I mean, I didn’t know the next step. I just needed to get out of there.
I started the Center from my house. I took the name of the Center because all the investigative reporting names were already taken. Then you’re on the outside. And, being on the inside, I had had all these groups with interesting information, hundreds of them, thousands maybe, coming in, trying to get their stories on 60 Minutes. And I had a sense of what works and what doesn’t in the mainstream media, and I knew that I had a different model than many of the other so-called independent or alternative—there’s all kinds of adjectives for them—type of media. I had no interest in being on the margins. I wanted the world to know everything I did. Instantly, of course. And so the model I chose was—this was pre-Internet—to do reports that were anal-retentively researched based on documents, you know, that would take a year and use ten or more researchers. And I would then announce the findings and that would be a news event.
The first news conference was in December of ’90, and there were 35 reporters at the Press Club. ABC’s 20/20 did a segment about it, C-Span, CNN and others, the wire services and the major dailies all covered it. And the model worked. This was something they had never covered, ever—the revolving door of White House trade officials where we found half of them, over a 25-year period, went to work for the people they were negotiating against, namely foreign governments and foreign corporations—but we actually had the numbers and the names. And we’d interviewed all of them, 75 people.
That showed that you could do investigative reporting, it could get out there, it could filter into the public consciousness, and it would be covered. And the Center would essentially be a wholesale provider, which it still is. But now with the Internet and with books—last year, “The Buying of the President 2004” was a best-seller for three months—so we also can go to bookstores now.
So we go through the media, but we also go around the media. It’s not a bad situation because you can get it out both ways. That continues to be the Center’s model.
Jay Rosen: Dan, you quit, too, without really knowing what your future prospects were going to be. Not a dissimilar story from what Charles just told us. You went from being columnist and online blogger for the San Jose Mercury News with, I think it’s fair to say, a position of some influence in Silicon Valley, to a start-up in citizens’ media with no track record and no base of operations at all. And you’ve been at it, what, six months now? Since leaving that environment, what have you learned in that time about creating conditions of trust and, to go back to Charles’ story, what was it that pushed you out the door?
Dan Gillmor: I wasn’t pushed. I jumped, and there was no one’s hand on my back except my own. I’ve likened it to jumping off a cliff expecting to assemble a hang-glider before I reached the bottom. And so I go through alternate moments of terror, exhilaration, which I’m told by my friends in Silicon Valley is completely normal. It certainly wasn’t normal for me. But it just felt like we were on the verge in media of something new, something that, in a decade or so, would begin to have a pretty good sense of what shape it was taking, maybe sooner. And that I had a chance to be one of the people who helped—I wouldn’t say guide it, but help clear away some of the brush so that people could do this.
Citizen Journalism and Big Media Can Co-exist
Dan Gillmor: And the jury is way out on any number of things, including what business models will exist for citizens media, how we can encourage people to do things that are more signal than noise, and fundamentally, how I hope we can add this system and stop all this nonsense about replacing big media—when it does its job well, it does it brilliantly and we should want to keep it.
Jay Rosen: Charles’ solution to that was not to replace the big media with his thing, but produce what they weren’t producing and then pitch it back to them as a story. That’s not replacing at all. And in that sense, one of the opportunities for citizen journalists is to do exactly that—to become, in effect, sources. That’s a different relationship than a dependence relationship.