If anything will keep the demand for news strong, it will be journalists’ ability to produce reliable, timely and accurate information while using proven ethical standards.
That is critical. The public needs professionally reported and written information so it can make important decisions in their lives. If the public does not trust or believe what it reads or hears on the news, then we as journalists are finished.
The demand for news is still there, especially in times of crisis and historic significance, and will remain there, as long as people can rely on it and trust it. While newspaper circulation is shrinking, Web site audience is growing. Unique visitors grew 12 percent nationally in 2008. The New York Times attracted 20 million unique visitors, USA Today 12 million and the Washington Post 11 million.
Cable news outlets had record audiences during the 2008 election. And people lined up to get copies of historic newspapers Nov. 5 after the election of the nation’s first black president.
Yet there is also evidence that news media credibility in waning. The number of people who say they trust all or most of what they read and hear from the news media continues to get smaller, according to a 2008 Pew Media Research Poll.
SPJ has noticed these trends and concerns. As part of the strategic plan that was approved in 2007, SPJ plans to conduct several town hall meetings across the country. The Society is on a long-term mission to restore media credibility.
One of the ways SPJ plans to restore the public’s faith in the press is to equip the public with the tools it needs to evaluate all forms of journalism. The Society hopes its town hall meeting program will increase dialogue between the public and the press. Society leaders believe that the more the public understands how and why responsible journalists do their jobs, the more likely they are to understand the valuable role the press plays in democracy.
The program is expected to accomplish a variety of objectives:
• It creates an innovative way to reach the public.
• It allows SPJ to develop a consistent message about ethics and media credibility.
• It engages people on all levels — national, regional, local — and even incorporates the local media and, most importantly, the public.
Many don’t understand the role of the news media or the steps reporters take when they gather the news. Many don’t realize that journalists operate under a set of standards meant to ensure that the reporting is fair and accurate. I hope that people who participate in the town hall meetings gain a better understanding of SPJ’s Code of Ethics and what it means in practice. The Code is our guide and road map to increased credibility. It is a commitment to the news consumer that the reporting and newsgathering have been done the right way.
We want the town hall meetings to be an open discussion between journalists and people who rely on the news to assist their daily lives. We hope that journalists will explain how they do their jobs and why it plays a vital role in democracy. And we hope that the audience shares its concerns about the reporting of an event or issue and gets an honest answer from the journalists about the steps that were taken in covering the news.
Journalists are not perfect. Some have strayed from the standards in the Code, and this strains the news media’s credibility. We at SPJ will continue to encourage journalists to work within the high standards laid out in the code.
We think we have an interesting concept for the town hall meetings as Poynter Institute ethics fellows will moderate most of them.
Stay tuned for confirmed locations and dates. And I hope you will take part in a news media credibility town hall meeting in a city near you. I also hope that once the town hall meetings have been completed, the dialogue between journalists and the community they cover will continue to create understanding about the role of the news media and how critical it is to maintain high standards in journalism. We need to do so for everyone’s sake.