Journalism is wrapping up a bad week — a week of mischaracterizations in news reports that further tainted the credibility of the industry.
Last Thursday, BuzzFeed News reported that a former attorney for President Donald Trump claimed the president directed him to lie to Congress, a criminal offense, leading congressional Democrats to ratchet up talk of impeachment. That bubble was burst by a rare statement from the special counsel’s office disputing some details of the story.
Then on Sunday morning, we awoke to a viral video of a confrontation between a seemingly smirking teenage boy donning a red “Make America Great Again” hat and Native American tribal elder Nathan Phillips. It turned out that much of the reporting about the story lacked important context, painting a picture that now appears wasn’t fully accurate.
These journalistic missteps come at a time when a large share of Americans don’t trust the news media, don’t believe they represent their views and don’t believe they correct their mistakes. Trump frequently tells Americans the news they see is fake, and the two recent blunders did not escape his attention.
In this environment, a simple mistake is turned into an indictment of the entire press. Many of the stories Trump targets as “fake news” are unflattering to him or his administration, but the reporting holds up as true. Yet, his accusations resonate with his most ardent followers.
The public’s low opinion of journalists stretches back decades, and gaining people’s trust is most challenging today. A Gallup/Knight Foundation survey last year found that Americans believe 62 percent of the news that appears in print, on television and on the radio is biased, 44 percent is inaccurate and 39 percent is misinformation. They believe it’s harder now to be well-informed and to determine which news is accurate.
People also don’t believe the press understands them, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of survey data that found 58 percent of Americans feel this way. Equally concerning, most Americans don’t believe news organizations will react in good faith when they discover they’ve made a mistake, according to Pew. About two-thirds of Americans believe news organizations will try to cover up their mistakes.
These data show the complex realities of distrust in news organizations by their potential customers and make clear there are no simple solutions to winning them over. Journalists, being human, will make mistakes. Journalists, being professional, will strive for excellence.
That’s really the most important thing news producers and managers can do: Take care with their work, making sure every detail of what’s published or broadcast is accurate, fair and adheres to the highest ethical standards. Put accuracy above speed, despite competitive pressures. Make sure stories provide appropriate context and nuances.
Refer to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which offers guidance to avoid these damaging stumbles. It offers tips for gathering, reporting and interpreting information; acting respectfully and independently; and being transparent and accountable.
As unfair as it is, an innocent mistake can be disastrous for American journalism.
Rod Hicks is Journalist on Call for the Society of Professional Journalists.