By: Gretchen A. Peck
Venture out into social-media circles to the places where the public gathers to talk about news and sources of news, and you’ll quickly get a sense of the bleakness that is public opinion about journalism. It would seem that media is to blame for many societal ills if you listen to social-media chatter:Liberal media! Conservative media! Corporate-owned media! Bias and errors and shoddy reporting, oh my! These are the reasons readers cite for distrusting newspapers.
As chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee, Kevin Z. Smith has been on the other end of the ethics hotline. “I’ve had the pleasure and sometimes displeasure of having to answer the better part of 300 questions every year,” he said. “I would say that a lot of the things I hear, with regard to trust and problems with media, are not different than what we heard 10 years ago—or even 20 years ago.”
Smith says the number one complaint fielded by the hotline is conflict of interest, followed by inaccuracies and errors.
Are all the gripes about newspapers warranted?
Robert Steele, Ph.D., The Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values, The Poynter Institute and retired Distinguished Professor, DePauw University, weighed in on the question: “(We should) recognize that citizens, in general, have increasing distrust at many institutions in our society; therefore, newspapers, as well as other forms of journalism, are affected by that overall attitude, displeasure or distrust that exists.”
According to a recent Gallup poll, “Americans’ faith in each of the three major news media platforms—television news, newspapers, and news on the Internet—is at or tied with record lows in Gallup’s long-standing confidence about institutions trend.” And about newspapers, in particular, Gallup surmised, “Confidence in newspapers has declined by more than half since its 1979 peak of 51 percent.”
“Historically, the press was sort of on a pedestal…and what the press said was the truth,” said Caroline Little, Newspaper Association of America president and CEO. “But journalism is a skill; it’s not that you just sort of pick up and do. Yet you have folks in the public who will point things out and suggest things, and correct errors; and that’s all part of the new and exciting and interesting process. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a great thing.”
A Rush to Publish
The good news for newspapers is that there’s still a slightly higher degree of trust in paper itself. Comparatively, the Internet is seen as sort a Wild West of publishing, uninhibited by journalism’s tenets.
“I’ve heard way too many times over the years, ‘Let’s just get it out, and then we’ll correct it if it’s wrong.’ And there are times when that’s essential, like in the midst of breaking natural disasters, a major crime or some other huge breaking story for which the facts are not clear may be disputed, or are contradictory,” Steele said. “Newspapers and other news organizations sometimes have to go out on a limb. We publish what we know, the best that we can and also say what we don’t know. That’s important. But I don’t think there’s any justification for putting information out when we haven’t asked the hard questions: ‘How do we know that? Are we sure?’ I think those two questions are often ignored.”
Look no further than the tumult that unfolded in Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a local police officer, who for days went unnamed, his identity protected even from the most persistent reporters. When Officer Darren Wilson was finally fingered, speculations about his motivation made like wildfire across the Internet.
It’s to news organizations and newspapers though where the public turned for facts, which eluded the press in the immediate aftermath, forcing many to rely on unnamed sources for insight. For example, it took no time at all for the unsubstantiated rumor that Officer Wilson sustained an orbital fracture during an altercation with Brown to make the rounds and get picked up by online and print media sources—FOX News, ABC News and The Washington Post to name a few—only to have it almost immediately refuted by unnamed sources speaking to other media outlets. It was difficult for hard-boiled news hounds to discern the truth, let alone a public eager for some information that would help to make sense of what had gone wrong in Ferguson.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Gilbert Bailon said his newsroom learned a lot of lessons covering the stories coming out of Ferguson, though mostly it reinforced what they already knew and put into practice: News should be well-sourced and the efforts to confirm information should be relentless.
“There’s always an urgency,” Bailon said, “particularly with Twitter and Facebook, people who profess knowledge, along with the theories and conspiracies and bits of information, but we’re going to stay the course. We’re not going to report those facts until they are confirmed by authoritative sources…We’ve found that there have been things published that are just wholly wrong and we’re glad that we didn’t participate in that. As the main daily in town, we need to have a record that ensures readers that we’re not just going to publish rumors,” such as Wilson’s facial fracture that was floating around social media.
“In fact, some of the publications that ran it included an image of an x-ray of a broken orbital bone. Some bigger papers picked it up and went with it,” he said. “We did not because it wasn’t sourced. We knew that story and others were out there, and we do check into them. If we confirm, we can promise you that we’ll report them. That was one story that we were very glad that we did not because it has since been debunked.”
To his colleagues at the helms of newspapers across the nation, Bailon stressed, “This is not a new concept, but you need to make sure that you have the information nailed down with good sources—even more than ever now, because there’s so much garbage, misinformation and partial information out there.”
Gutting the Place
Readers are aware of the plight of news publishers. They see the downsizing, the cutting of corners, and how it affects the relationship.
“The infrastructure of American newspapers has splintered,” said Steele. “The cutbacks in staff members are very clear and factually significant. The very specific changes within news organizations—of cutting back on line editors, copyeditors as well as beat reporters—make a big difference. If you have fewer individuals—and sometimes less-qualified individuals who are carrying out the news gathering, news reporting and the publishing process, whether it’s in print, online or any other form—it will impact quality.”
“There is a lot of good journalism being practiced,” Steele added. “But it doesn’t take very long to look at a daily newspaper and see where there are shortcomings that may not have existed in the same way five years ago or three years ago—everything from spelling errors to factual errors, to stories that are incomplete.”
ProPublica’s editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg asserted that an observant public notes when publishers charge more while offering less; this undermines faith in those publications. Shoddy and lazy reporting—or worse, not having the resources to cover important news at all—is a brand killer and what Engelberg called a “legitimate reason” to be cynical.
“You see stories like, for example, Bell, California, and you say, ‘Was the press doing its job?’ Well, clearly it was not because the town council was able to vote to give (themselves) $900,000 salaries when no one was watching. That hardly is going to raise the standing of the press in people’s minds,” he said.
As newspapers continue to be challenged by skeleton crews and limited resources, technology is stepping in to help support editorial. Now, editors have automated copyediting apps. Grammarly offers access to an “instant proofreader” and a “plagiarism detector.” And Storyful’s news wire is delivering vetted, reliable information, reporting and multimedia content that its editors have culled from across the Internet and social-media sphere.
Storyful’s founder and CEO Mike Little (no relation to NAA president Caroline Little) explained, “Storyful acts as a first layer of social content discovery and verification for its partners. They do the storytelling.
“In the days before social media, a newspaper could control the fallout from any mistakes it made. It could take time to write a correction, and face little or no external examination of the processes that led to the mistake. In the era of the real-time Web, a publisher has little or no control of the fallout …. It will generally be detected by an external observer first. It will be forensically analyzed by experts on the social Web and may often go viral. Any attempt to limit exposure will make the reputational damage worse. The rise of the social Web has radically increased the importance of accuracy to a media brand.
“Be open, transparent and collaborative,” he said. “Being right is so much more important than being first. Build a newsroom culture where exposing hoaxes and mistakes on the social Web are celebrated. These days, stopping a story is as important as breaking one.”
The Washington Post’s Richard Leiby recently reported that CNN host Fareed Zakaria was facing allegations of plagiarism by media watchdog Our Bad Media, which insisted he’d lifted content without attribution—an offense that he’d been penalized for in the past. The columns in question had been published by Time, The Washington Post, and CNN.com. Though Zakaria denied the claims, Leiby reported that the accuser was using the allegations to undermine the integrity of those publications: “These examples raise far more serious questions about the integrity of Zakaria’s editors at CNN, Time and The Washington Post, all of whom claimed to have conducted similar reviews and found nothing.”
According to Steele, “(Plagiarism) is a major concern and it always has been. It’s an internal issue because it speaks to the integrity of the news organization. Journalists should not be inappropriately taking or stealing the material of others and using it to their own credit. Whether they’re doing it intentionally or accidentally, it is still wrong to do so. Clearly, the public may not care about this as much as we do in journalism.”
Caroline Little referred to plagiarism as a bane and a constant. “You’re not going to catch everything, and there’s always going to be bad apples…I think what’s critical for newspapers, though, is like what you tell your kids: Stuff happens. It’s how you deal with it that’s the most important.”
On the Bias
“Lack of objectivity” is an oft-cited criticism—particularly popular in social media circles. There are a lot of readers that simply dismiss a publication as liberal or conservative just because someone on talk radio or cable news told them to think that way. These are competitors to newspapers, after all.
“There’s a prevailing attitude—that honestly irritates me to no end—that everybody in media, that media as a whole is one giant, corrupt, agenda-seeking ethical transgression,” Smith said. “For instance, if you say something about FOX News and its blatant disregard for facts or its clear agenda-setting, they’ll say, ‘Well, everybody in media does that. No matter what we watch, no matter what we read, this is prevalent.’ It’s an accepted notion, which feeds this overall sense of distrust, because people think we don’t just report facts, but report the facts that we want you to know.”
“I think that’s part of it—the polarized political conversation and the sense that there are two sides. There may be two sides, but one is usually based on facts, and the other is delusional. That puts the press in a very difficult position, because if you write a story that sort of gives both sides…that means that a percentage of your audience is going to think that you’re carrying water for people who are delusional, and that’s a problem,” Engelberg said.
In Missouri, Bailon says that charges of bias are standard operating procedure for newspapers, which are sometimes warranted but often more a reflection of the divide amongst readers. For example, in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, the newsrooms came under attack from all sides—from readers who questioned motivations and whether the paper was aggressively pursuing every angle of every facet of the story.
“We got a lot of heat when we did a profile of Darren Wilson,” Bailon said. “People were making all kinds of derogatory comments about the paper, our editors and me personally, suggesting that somehow we’d done a disservice to the community by writing a story about Wilson at all.”
Another criticism Bailon fielded? Because the newspaper had such extensive coverage and dramatic photography, it was somehow fanning the flames—as much creating the story as reporting on it. “We believe that we’ve been very measured, but if you look at the immediate chaos that unfolded, it made sense to look at things like large militarized police departments. That was a big story at that point. Now, we’re more focused on trying to cover the investigation as best as we can…though it’s still very hard to get information from authorities about anything.”
Tear Down the Wall
“I think the Internet has been one of the greatest things for consumers and readers and people who want to understand the world better,” Caroline Little said. “And newspapers are embracing that. It uncovers warts—mistakes in reporting—and it uncovers more and more facts, which aids in reporting, and benefits all of us. So I think having those conversations and being more transparent about that is really important.”
“There’s so much emphasis on transparency in this era, and I’m a big believer in (it),” Steele said. “But transparency without accountability is hollow, and accountability is built on having quality control, built on skill, built on journalistic purpose and commitment. Too often in this era that all goes by the wayside. The pressures on editors and journalists is phenomenal—to produce more, much more quickly. And if we lose that checks-and-balances process or there’s no quality control in place, then you lose the accountability. You can be transparent all you want, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”
No matter the publishing platform—whether it’s print or digital—the news outlets that go after the tough stories and tell them with integrity will earn readers’ trust.
“The public may be fickle and truly they are,” Smith said. “But despite that fact, if you are open and talk about the process, if you make a tough decision—and you think you’re going to get some pushback from the general public—you can mitigate a lot of that. You can show readers what took place, and that you were thoughtful and diligent…When you invite them in, behind the scenes, you give them reason to respect you and the decisions that you make. At the end of the day, they may not agree and they might not like it, but I think they’re going to have a little more respect—not only for you, but for the profession itself. It dispels this notion that journalists don’t have any conscience or morals, or that they don’t give consideration to possible damage or harm that information can cause.”
Engelberg tempered the criticisms. “Is it a business strategy to be a distrusted publication? The answer is: Of course not. If you break that compact with your audience, you’ll have a very serious problem. But I think if you are trusted, it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to have the kind of business problems we’re seeing. I wish that were true because if that was that the case and all we needed to do was rebuild trust among our audience, I think we can pull that off pretty easily.”
Scandals and Scoundrels
The public is fickle about errors. Quick to forgive even the smarmiest politicians for slips of the tongue, it is less forgiving when journalists get the story wrong.
And most days—day in, day out—newspapers chug right along, managing to get it right the majority of the time. But when the story proves untrue, when the facts turn out to be fiction, it tarnishes both journalist and media brand—think Lara Logan and 60 Minutes; or Somaly Mam, Nick Kristoff and The New York Times; or the New York Post’s notorious “Bag Men” cover.
Recently, celebrity feuds with newspapers have made news. Actor George Clooney took great issue with the Daily Mail’s attempt to fan religious flames and speculate about his pending nuptials. Clooney very publicly responded by writing a first-person correction that appeared in the July 9 edition of USA Today. In it, Clooney chastised the publication: “The Daily Mail, more than any other organization that calls itself new, has proved time and time again that facts make no difference in the articles they make up.”
Across the pond, Russell Brand sued News Group Newspapers’ Sun this year following a fictional story it ran about a cheating allegation. The actor/comedian had asked the paper for a public correction and apology, which it refused before Brand filed his libel case. BBC News reported in May Brand won that case and was awarded damages.
It’s not always the case of reporters reporting on celebrity gossip that gets newspapers into hot water with the public. The profession doesn’t shield journalists and publishers from being the fodder for gossip, as well. The public loves a good scandal, or even just the whiff of one. That type of news travels fast. When Jill Abramson and The New York Times parted ways whispers and speculations abounded. Suddenly, the news was the news. It had all the makings for a juicy tale—misogyny, income inequality, management style, a viral conversation about ‘bossy’ bosses. And for a hot minute, eyes across the nation were focused in on the drama, which only chipped away at trust in that institution and upheld some preconceived notions about newspaper publishing.
In August, The Philadelphia Inquirer—no stranger to publishing drama—challenged its competitor, The Philadelphia Daily News, about the ethics of reporters Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, who earned a Pulitzer Prize for their series, “Tainted Justice,” which exposed law-enforcement corruption and allegations of sexual assault. The journalists were accused of buying the story with gifts and favors. Though the Daily News and the reporters fervently defended their honor and process, any reader following the saga would have had a difficult time cutting through what were merely professional sour grapes over being scooped and what may have been a legitimate ethical challenge. Which newspaper organization—which journalists—could be trusted?
High-profile cases of this kind don’t bode well for newspapers in general. The run-off from them diminishes trust in even those publications and journalists trying to get it right, to do right.