Thursday was a proud day for journalists. Hundreds of newspapers and other media organizations explained the important role they play in their communities or the country and asserted they are not “enemies of the people” as the president has frequently said.
But setting aside a day to denounce President Trump’s attacks and explain how journalists work on behalf of the American people is not enough to win over those who do not trust the press. It will take many other activities and many more days — more accurately, years — to gain meaningful ground. To start, news outlets should develop or strengthen relationships with the communities they serve and establish regular dialogue with residents. And above all else, consistently produce fair, accurate stories about issues that resonate with the people in their coverage areas.
To start, news outlets should develop or strengthen relationships with the communities they serve and establish regular dialogue with residents. And above all else, consistently produce fair, accurate stories about issues that resonate with the people in their coverage areas.
A survey this summer by Axios and SurveyMonkey found that 70 percent of respondents believed “traditional major news sources report news they know to be fake, false, or purposely misleading.” Annual surveys by Gallup have shown a steady decline in media trust over the decades, although there was an uptick last year, fueled by responses from Democratic survey participants. The press enjoyed its highest level of confidence among Americans in the years following Watergate, with nearly 70 percent trusting what was reported in the mass media.
Flipping the stats back to 1974 levels is unimaginable. But there are things news organizations can do to push them in that direction, some of which were done Thursday. Many of the editorials were educational, explaining how the work of journalists benefits citizens.
“Journalists talk to people, hunt down documents and ask questions so you’ll know if the charity soliciting you for
donations is legitimate; if there’s a problem with 911 dispatching; if the public mental health system works,” the Arizona Daily Star wrote. “If local government wants you to pay more for recycling, we’ll tell you why and how much. If water wells are contaminated, we’ll explain how it happened, and what’s next.”The Daily Star spoke in terms its readers could relate to. Too often journalists offer only abstract explanations — something about the First Amendment and democracy.
Media organizations also should find a way to allow residents to observe their work, taking away the mystery of how stories come together. Show them the newsroom debates about whether a small detail is accurate or whether a story is fair to an accused person; the lengths journalists go through to track down people and give them an opportunity to defend themselves when the reporting shows them in an unfavorable light; the conversations about whether visuals are too insensitive; and the decisions by newsroom leaders to kill or hold a story because of concerns about its accuracy or fairness.
Obviously, there are limits to how open news organizations can be, given security and competitive concerns. Each will have to decide on the level they’re comfortable with.
Don’t focus so much on what the president says about the press; focus on producing important stories and staying in touch with people in the community.
“It is vital that we not allow Trump, or anyone else, to sever the relationship between the American people and the press,” the Daily Star told its readers.
Rod Hicks is Journalist on Call for the Society of Professional Journalists