Everyone from George Washington to Vince Lombardi has used a variation of “The best defense is a good offense.” Maybe it’s time for journalism to drop its defensiveness and go on the offensive.
The popular theory is that “the media” is a black magic cabal whose members meet regularly to shake its secret handshake, ties its socks in inverted knots before tossing them into a bonfire and then decide “the liberal media agenda.” Survey after survey shows that the public believes we are biased and display a bias when we report the news. And now the most powerful official in America is reinforcing these beliefs.
Those who have worked inside newsrooms know that while there is often “group think” that needs to be challenged, most journalists are ethical, independent and are proud of working in an industry that helps strengthen American democracy.
We are not the enemy of the people. And we need to tell them why.
I opened my Sunday morning paper in Ventura County, Calif., and saw a remarkable example of how well we do this and how important we are.
If there is any profession under attack more frequently than the news media it is local police agencies. The Ventura County Star assigned nine journalists to spend the night on patrol with police officers from agencies across the county. In addition to creating some compelling stories for the Sunday paper, the move exposed the police—and the public—to the journalists and how they do their jobs as disinterested observers.
This is important. In our fight back against being labeled as “fake news” purveyors and enemies of the American people, we need to tell the public just how ethical most journalists are and how they conduct their business without bias.
How many people have you surprised in your career by telling them what gifts you cannot accept? In other industries, it is the standard practice among vendors to reward good customers with gifts—tickets to sporting events, for instance. Journalists can’t take those gifts. The public does not know this. I had many news sources ask me, “How much will this story cost?”
What other industries appoint ombudsman or customer representatives assigned to right whatever wrongs the journalists might have committed? Ever tried to get a hospital or an auto dealer to admit they made a mistake? The “self-check” in many of these industries is that telephone survey after purchase that asks you to rate them from one to 10. It’s just not the same.
And can you name another industry that puts a physical and figurative wall between the part of the business that brings in the money (advertising) and the part of the business that brings in the customers (news)? We often take approaches that directly affect our bottom line and we do it with honor. Seasoned journalists have written articles that caused advertisers to stop advertising. And the journalists kept their jobs.
The antiseptic life of journalists would shock many Americans. The public should know that journalists cannot:
- Accept an honorarium while speaking to a group that has a political agenda and tries to influence you.
- Take even the slightest bit of information from another writer without properly acknowledging it.
- Serve on a non-profit board doing community good if that service would affect your news coverage or editorial writing.
- Engage in political activity either by participating in rallies or donating money.
- Make an investment based on the information you gather about a company while reporting the news.
- Threaten to use your position as a journalist to gain an advantage for yourself.
- Keep an arm’s length relationship with any member of the public (including influential news makers) who might try to influence your news coverage.
If only we could take our readers on a ride-along to show them that this is an important and even noble profession. But we will not win their trust by trying to outshout our opponents. We’ll win by convincing them that journalists work hard, honestly and without improper influence. We need to go on the offensive.
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.