Restoring trust in journalism

In 2018 and 2019, I had the great privilege of serving on the Knight Commission on Trust, Media & Democracy, a joint initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute. I was invited to reflect on the Commission’s work and recommendations in a talk to the California News Publishers Association. Here’s what I shared:

One of the most frightening conversations I’ve had in my career was with a dear friend who had a secret to share.

She told me that she had been feeling down in the dumps lately, so she took the advice of a friend of hers who happened to be a psychologist. Several weeks after following that advice, she said, her mood brightened significantly.

The treatment was simple. It didn’t involve anti-depressant drugs, counseling or shock therapy. It wasn’t even one of those miracle herbal cures touted on late-night TV.

Best of all, the cure for her ills was painless – and it didn’t cost a dime. In fact, it even saved her money.

She was so excited that she couldn’t stop talking about it. But I wish she would.

The secret to her positive mood swing was a “news fast,” a term that describes a period of avoiding Web surfing, television newscasts and newspapers because the content is, well, too depressing.

Folks like Andrew Weil M.D., a holistic health guru, suggest that constant exposure to negative news can have an adverse impact on one’s mood, potentially aggravating already present feelings of sadness and depression.

To add insult to injury, my wife came home one day, told me all about it and said that Oprah Winfrey even recommended it.

For me, THAT was depressing.

It was depressing because I’ve made the practice of journalism my life’s work, dating back to starting a class newspaper in the third grade. I was drawn to journalism, both then and now, because of its power to give voice to people who don’t have them, to be a watchdog of the public interest and to serve as a check on civic institutions.

Today, I believe journalism, indeed, America, faces a challenge that will take enormous energy and effort to overcome.

I’m talking about the growing lack of trust in democratic institutions and, even more troubling, a lack of trust in those individuals positioned to work on our behalf.

Now, there are times when that distrust is justified: A clergy member accused of misconduct and abuse, a journalist caught fabricating sources, an elected official caught in a lie.

These examples have always been with us – indeed, politicians, journalists and members of the clergy are human, and as humans, we all make mistakes.

Today, however, what seems like a crisis of distrust is aided and abetted by people using social networks and other tools of modern communication to exploit the last layer of those we trust even more – our friends and family members.

The advent of bad actors using the people closest to us to spread disinformation and lies has the potential to pull us apart even further.

Into this breach waded twenty-seven people convened by The Aspen Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation – a group now known as the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy.

I’m proud to have been a part of that Commission and even more proud to give you a high-level view of our recommendations. I’ll then dive in to one specific recommendation that has significant implications for publishers as we seek to derive more revenue from the consumers of the news and information content we produce.

The entire report can be found via the websites of the Aspen Institute and the Knight Foundation, and I commend it to your attention.

Much or our discussion centered around the issue of transparency, and more specifically the idea that transparency breeds trust.

At my core, I’m a community news editor most familiar with places like Camarillo, Palm Springs, Redding and Salinas, newsrooms I work with in my corporate role with Gannett and the USA TODAY Network, and the three communities where I occupied the role of Editor: Akron, Ohio, Evansville, Indiana and Tallahassee, Florida.

As a reporter and editor, I learned the hard way that trust had to be earned every day through complete, comprehensive and fair local news coverage. We had to be accurate, and when we weren’t, we had to quickly and publicly own up to our mistakes. I felt then and still believe today that to know a local journalist is to trust one.

This is the perspective I brought to the Commission, and it is from this vantage point that I’d like to take a deep dive into one of our major recommendations for news organizations – the concept of radical transparency.

About 13 years ago I was leading the newsroom at the Akron Beacon Journal when one of our local columnists came to me with a sensitive story. He’d been spending time on a new social networking platform called MySpace, and he was appalled at what he saw: High school students posting pictures of drug and alcohol use, massive parties when parents were out of town – you know, the same stuff some of us did long before the advent of the internet.

Now, our columnist didn’t want to ‘out’ these kids for bad behavior, but he did want to send a message that when you put something out there, it literally is there for the world to see.

So we prepared a story explaining how these new social networks function, and included some identifying information – notably, the schools some of these students went to. The package also included tips for parents on how to talk with their kids about these new platforms that were just coming on to the scene.

I realized my phone and e-mail would be lit up with complaining readers, so I wrote a column to accompany the story explaining what we did, why we did it and the questions we weighed as we prepared the article before publication.

We then posted the story, along with my column, on our website and published both in print the next morning.

Instead of criticism, we received a wave of understanding, support and gratitude for helping parents have important conversations with their children.

That, in a nutshell, is radical transparency in action. The Commission believes that in order to rebuild trust in the media, news organizations need to embark on what would seem to be the radical practice of routinely explaining what we do and how we do it.

All too often, we assume that the public understands how we practice journalism. For example, some of my colleagues believe that displaying a writer’s name and photo atop an online story signifies that they are writing opinion or commentary, even when that label is not used.

Other news organizations liberally utilize anonymous sources but fail to explain why that source is seeking protection from public disclosure.

In both cases, news industry practices that have become common and automatic do less to inform citizens and more to sow seeds of distrust.

The Commission urges leaders of organizations that report and distribute news to adopt common standards and best practices that promote transparency.

They include clearly labeling fact-based journalism and opinion; clearly communicating standards on corrections, fact-checking and anonymous sources – and avoiding the use of advertising formats that blur the line between content and commerce.

In addition, the Commission urges news organizations to engage more deeply with citizens and communities, building two-way communication between journalists and the audiences they serve to improve the quality and relevance of news reporting.

Tom Friedman of the New York Times once said that if you really want to get through to people as a journalist, you first have to open their ears, and the best way to open their ears is to first open your own … show them the respect of listening. He said it’s amazing what they will say after that, and it is amazing what you might learn.

The benefits of greater – indeed, radical, transparency are clear – and backed up by real-world examples from advocates such as the Trusting News Project at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. Let me share a few of those benefits from the Commission report:

  • Transparency provides a means for holding news organizations more accountable for the accuracy and fairness of their content;
  • It encourages high standards in reporting by revealing more about how that reporting is conducted;
  • It gives audiences the opportunity to discover and explore additional information that might otherwise be hidden in reporters’ notebooks, files or cameras;
  • And it gives audiences a better understanding of who journalists are and how they operate.

Aside from the change we would like to see in the relationship between news organizations and the audiences they serve, we would be remiss if we didn’t reinforce that government, at all levels, has a corresponding responsibility to be transparent about their actions and methods.

In short, greater transparency across the worlds of journalism and government will reinforce a role that I believe we all embrace – that of being a civic or public servant. But I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that accomplishing this goal takes work.

Back in my own newsroom, I had to anticipate the questions readers would have before they were asked – and address them as directly as I could.

That was the same approach my colleagues at USA TODAY utilized in another case of radical transparency – when it published an unprecedented first-person account from a writer on the impact of her mother’s suicide.

News organizations typically avoid writing about suicide, saying it is too personal a topic. Yet suicide rates have increased by a third over the past 20 years, leading to what some would suggest is a national public health crisis.

Amid our determination to tell the writer’s personal story of coping with suicide in full, we consulted with experts, connected with suicide survivors and explained to readers what we were doing and why we were doing it.

We created a survivors Facebook group to facilitate conversations and told the stories of others who came forward to share their experiences.

The result was an outpouring of support for those affected by suicide and, we hope, increased awareness of its impact. John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, wrote USA TODAY hours after publication saying that he believed the stories would “save lives and that they need to be read, far and wide.”

That, to me, is one of the greatest benefits of an open, transparent approach to journalistic practice: One that gives us the courage to tackle uncomfortable subjects in ways that save lives.

Thanks for being here today.