By Sydney Jones
When asked about the difference between a journalist and a fiction writer, my 9-year-old sister replied, “Nothing, they both lie to people for a living.”
Sorry, I wasn’t telling the whole truth. I never asked my sister that. Yet I’m fairly sure she would say something similar if asked, so I’m just going to include it anyway.
Journalists today are facing a major public trust crisis so severe that it threatens our livelihood, careers and reputations. Yet we created this crisis.
There is a disconnect between the way journalists’ view ourselves and reality. In the study Verification as a Strategic Ritual, researchers found that many journalists hold themselves to an extremely high personal standard.
“The single most frequently and clearly stated value expressed in journalists’ self-identification is a drive for accuracy,” the study stated.
Since the beginning of news-dissemination, it has been a journalist’s duty to provide concise and truthful facts to the public. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics has an entire section dedicated to truthful reporting.
“Journalists should take responsibility for the accuracy of their work,” states the Code of Ethics.
I would argue that many journalists, myself included, have dismissed the direct correlation between accuracy and public trust. A reader must be convinced that the journalist can be trusted, but in recent years the media’s truthful reputation has been ruined by lazy reporting and a willingness to twist the truth in order to persuade audiences.
There are far too many examples, but one that stood out to me when it was presented in my community journalism class is Stephen Glass, a former reporter for The New Republic. Glass was found by Forbes journalist Adam Penenberg to have fabricated sources, quotes and people for multiple stories over the course of three years.
“The truth is, bad journalism can be found anywhere,” said Penenburg. “It is not the medium; it is the writer.”
In this specific case, one journalist held another accountable. However, this presents a unique problem, due to the fact that readers are increasingly distrusting of all media, regardless of whether or not it has been proven distrustful.
The statistics are grim, with a 2016 Gallup research poll finding that members of the public who believe that news organizations report consistently accurate news fell to 32 percent.
In the case of Stephen Glass, he not only destroyed his reputation, but also the magazine’s. And he deceived hundreds of readers in the process.
“Think of your reader as a good neighbor or a best friend, someone you would never knowingly deceive,” said Jock Lauterer in his book on community journalism.
I believe this deception is ultimately brought on by three things:
- Laziness, the vehicle through which dishonest or untrustworthy media is produced
- Arrogance, which prevents the journalist from admitting and taking responsibility for their mistakes
- Lack of Appreciation for Audience, whom a journalist’s entire career is fixated on serving.
Once a journalist allows these three things to permeate their work, it is only a matter of time before irreversible mistakes are made.
“Journalism is just the art of capturing behavior,” claims Glass’s character in “Shattered Glass”, a movie about his exposure. “You have to know who you’re writing for. And you have to know what you’re good at.”
I believe that is a dangerous misrepresentation of what truly makes journalism unique. It is not solely an art form or mode of communication. Genuinely great reporting separates itself from the mediocre by informing, motivating and inspiring people to take action in their community.
Anyone can sit at a computer and write well for a specific audience. Yet it takes real talent, real integrity, to tell the stories that people may not want to read.
“There’s going to come a time when you have the story—and your town won’t want you to publish it,” said McClure. “They’ll say it would be bad for business. And your publisher might not want you to write it. He might even threaten to fire you. But you know you’ve got to write it. Besides, you’re no good in community journalism unless you’ve been fired for taking an unpopular stand at least once.
These are the stories that preserve our free speech and democracies, yet these are the stories journalists are unable to tell because of our untrustworthy reputation.
So here’s where we stand: journalists still view themselves as possessing high integrity, yet statistics, multiple scandals and public opinion says otherwise.
And the solution, as I see it, starts just as the problem did, with each of us in the journalism community.
We must be vigilant in order to ensure our stories are consistently factual. Gone are the days in which we rely on editors to follow behind and clean up our messes.
Because of the trend towards community journalism and self-publishing on blogs, we have become the sole fact-checkers of our work before the piece is published.
“If you care passionately about what you are doing, any inaccuracies, any mistakes, any mischaracterization of the degree of importance or significance of things, greatly undermines what you are trying to accomplish,” state researchers in the Verification as a Strategic Ritual study.
Actually holding ourselves to the standard that we claim to believe in is the only way to gain back public trust. While it may be a long and difficult road, I believe it is one that must be taken in order to protect our God-given rights and liberties; I think that my sister would agree with that as well.