Critical Thinking: How Can Newspapers Regain The Trust Of Their Readership?
Posted: 9/18/2012  |  By: Nu Yang
Q: A recent Gallup poll revealed that only 25 percent of adults expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in newspapers. At its peak in 1979, consumer confidence in newspapers was 51 percent. How can newspapers today regain the trust of their readership?

Elizabeth Bonner, 21, senior, Auburn University (Auburn, Ala.)
Bonner is a senior honors student and staff writer for The Auburn Plainsman student newspaper. She is majoring in journalism with a minor in political science. During the summer of 2011, Bonner was editorial intern for the New Statesman, a current affairs and political magazine in London. This summer, she interned as a reporter with The Tennessean in Nashville.

A: We live in a world of instant information. This creates an incredibly competitive atmosphere for any news organization. Newspapers can no longer stop at making sure today’s big news appears in tomorrow’s print. They must compete with TV, radio, and millions of online outlets to get the news to the people — and get it to them first.

This race to break has begun to take priority over some of the most fundamental pillars of journalism, most importantly accuracy.

In an effort to get the news out first, journalists are neglecting to get every side of the story and conduct basic fact checks, producing hasty reports with — if they’re lucky — minor spelling errors or — if they’re not — huge mistakes that raise suspicions of agendas and biases.

In live reporting of the Supreme Court’s decision on President Obama’s health care bill, CNN and Fox News both announced false reports. CNN went on to publish a string of inaccurate information, confusing viewers and readers across the country. There is no pride in being the first to break the wrong news.

More recently, as America woke up to the tragic news of the Aurora mass murders July 20, ABC was quick to link the Tea Party’s Jim Holmes to the crime when news of the suspect’s name first surfaced. There is no excuse for reporting this type of unverified conclusion.

Yes, timeliness is an important piece of good journalism, especially in this day and age, but it is rendered completely meaningless if incorrect news is reported quickly.

Journalists must commit to reporting the truth and only the truth — no matter the extra time and effort it takes. This will help restore credibility to the news industry and begin the process of repairing the public’s trust in the words that appear in their papers and on their computer and TV screens.

George Spohr, 31, editor, The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pa.)
Spohr began his career 14 years ago as a reporter while in high school. He later served as a business journalist before making the jump to management. His past roles include executive editor of The World in Coos Bay, Ore.; state editor of the Watertown Daily Times in Watertown, N.Y.; and business editor of the Times Herald- Record in Middletown, N.Y.

A: At a time when newspapers are competing against every blogger with a WordPress account, it’s crucial that newspapers distinguish themselves from their online counterparts. One of the best ways to do that is to transition the best practices of print to our digital portfolios.

Most newspapers do a good job of correcting bad information in print, but when it happens online, it’s done in a vacuum. The bad information quietly changes online, but you’d have to have before-and-after screenshots to know what changed.

The New York Times
has a great model to address that, and it’s one we’re adopting here at The Sentinel.

When we need to correct information we’ve reported, we make changes to the story online, but we also append a timestamped editor’s note letting readers know exactly what has changed. Readers instantly know what about the story has changed and, in some cases, why the mistake was made in the first place. Relatively few bloggers hold themselves to that standard.

It comes down to newspapers being much more transparent with readers online when we make a mistake. Credibility and accountability are some of the few tools we have to differentiate ourselves from our competitors.

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