In my 12 years of parochial school education, I routinely earned B’s in math. They should have been A’s because I normally got the answer correct, but the teachers would dock me because “You didn’t show your work.”
They didn’t believe me that I knew the answers. I could have been cheating because I did not show how I got the answer.
This is one of the reasons for the ever-fading trust in journalism. We don’t show our work.
Most of you have seen both “The Post” and “Spotlight.” In ancient times there was “All the President’s Men.” At the end of both current movies, the audience I was in cheered. These movies showed what it is to be a journalist. How carefully we craft articles after numerous interviews and resolving conflicting versions of the truth, often hidden by government officials or powerful people. Journalism is difficult. We work and work and work until we get the “best obtainable version of the truth” by deadline, Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein said in 1998.
The trouble is the public thinks we make it up. They think we have our minds made up on how the story is going to appear before we have gathered the first fact.
The vast space of the web, and our opportunities on social media, provide journalists with a chance to show the public how we work. We can regain their trust by pulling back the curtain.
Here are nine ideas on how to do it:
- Tell them how you did it. Jay Rosen wrote in a splendid column for PressThink that we ought to explain how we do what we do. He credited ProPublica for doing this well. Take it a step further. On each web version of locally written stories, attach a note from the reporter detailing the sources used and the documents read. Attach links to these sources and documents when appropriate.
- Your editor is your best voice for explanation. I regret that only about one of every four columns I wrote at the newspaper dealt with how we practiced journalism. I should have done this weekly. You get to be editor not necessarily because you are a great columnist. You get to be editor because you know how to edit. The public wants to hear about how you and your staff do your jobs. (And for goodness sake, explain that reporters do not write the headlines. And then explain the difficulty of writing good headlines.)
- Acknowledge that every article has a point of view, but your job is to be fair. Some people criticize it as “he said, she said,” some journalism. But the public respects journalists who try to fairly represent “the other side” with more than a single comment. An article that seems so one-sided might have the opposite effect and make the reader sympathetic to the other side.
- Stop being so negative. Most of life is not what’s on the police blotter, or the school board members who can’t get along, or a politician saying there isn’t enough money. Yes, our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but even the afflicted and the comfortable have a sense of what’s right about the community. We lose credibility when we are constantly the community scold. You might think you do enough good news. Double what you do.
- Tell readers what you know and what you don’t know. Rosen also cited this idea in the column and you see it often on major breaking news stories. It ought to be added to the routine stories as well. We don’t know everything by deadline.
- Explain it to me like I’m a 10-year-old. Too many articles assume the reader knows as much background as the reporter. They don’t. Articles on local government need extensive background. (Here is where your website is your friend.)
- “You’re doing this just to sell newspapers.” Who hasn’t heard that chestnut? To the extent you possibly can, explain to your readers the economics of how a newspaper works.
- Print biographies of the people doing this work. Run small bios in print and preserve them on the web. Make them personal so that your readers know this is a newspaper run by human beings like them. It is easier to trust that way.
- Talk with us about how we produce the newspaper. A tech town hall is a great way to meet with 2,000 of your closest friends.
Show your work. You’ll likely get an A.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.