The post-Helsinki case for rebuilding the public’s trust in journalism

July 23, 2018 11:00

I warned at the beginning of the year that 2018 was poised to be one of the most toxic election years, and most threatening to the First Amendment and the public’s need to know, in modern American history.
 
As springtime began, my concern undiminished, I wrote letters to the chairs of Democratic and Republican campaign committees asking them to implore candidates not to inflame anti-news media passions this year.
 
Now, in the dog days of summer, we are seeing even more of exactly what I was concerned about. Candidates in local congressional and statewide elections are using terms such as “fake news” to describe statements made by their opponents, or, more apropos to my stated apprehension, to go after responsible journalists for daring to ask hard questions and share the facts they learn with the public.
 
In a particularly notable case, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-California) regularly attacks his hometown newspaper during the current election cycle, accusing it of collaborating with “radical left-wing groups.”
 
Some candidates across the country of both major political parties are even employing one of the tactics ascribed to interlopers in our 2016 presidential campaign, by setting up fake news websites.
 
All of this is happening at a time the leader of the free world continues relentlessly attacking responsible journalism as the “enemy of the American people,” even labeling legitimate news organizations “fake news” while he was on foreign soil.
 
Those attacks, not surprisingly, seem to increase in frequency whenever the president’s performance is vilified by people across the political spectrum, such as was the case following his recent summit, and associated joint news conference, with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
 
Democrats and Republicans, including our president’s own Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, spoke out and tweeted in opposition to the commander-in-chief’s refusal to acknowledge unequivocally during that news conference that Putin’s government was responsible for 2016 U.S. election hacking, and was preparing to attempt a redux in 2018.
 
Yet, as I wrote in a July 18 op-ed piece for USA Today, some in the cable news ecosphere – especially a particular outlet whose prime time hosts are among the president’s favorite supporters – compound the problem by continuing to conflate responsible journalism and opinion media.
 
In response, the network in question came after me without addressing my central point, that responsible journalism and opinion must be clearly distinguished to the audience. News consumers also have an obligation to discern between fact and opinion, but with the never-diminishing swirl of contradicting information available these days, don’t we have an obligation to help them? I submit that it would be in our own best interest to do so.
 
Back at the local level, we are still seeing public officials interfering with responsible journalists’ obligation to keep their communities informed. In Chicago recently, the judge in a high-profile murder case muffled an attorney for a public radio station who had the audacity to fight for the disclosure of key documents. In Minnesota, a sheriff’s deputy seized a newspaper photographer’s data card merely for the transgression of lawfully taking pictures at the scene of a drowning.
 
Such incidents of obstruction have been happening, in one form or another, for decades, starting long before today’s anti-news media vitriol reached its current level. But it is difficult to imagine that they aren’t somehow worse in this venomous environment.
 
We have right now, after all, a political and ideological class that has at its core a mission to obfuscate the truth in an attempt to discredit responsible journalists’ constitutionally guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth.
 
We are not defenseless in this struggle:
  • Be completely transparent with news consumers, not just with regard to what you report but in terms of the process you go through – sometime agonizing – to report it.
  • Use on-air and online editorials, ideally delivered by your general manager, publisher, news director or editor, to point out instances where you have shined a light on problems in your community and how those stories have led to positive changes in your communities.
  • Seek out opportunities to connect with the public, through local speaking engagements before community groups, to rebut any attempts to paint you with a broad “fake news” brush.
  • Engage one-on-one with opinion influencers in your community to explain personally to them how you cover the news and why it is important that you are there to keep your community informed.
Sadly, today, it is no longer enough simply to broadcast or publish a news story and expect everyone watching, listening or reading to find it credible without skepticism, or even suspicion. Gladly, today, an increasing number of responsible journalists are connecting with their news consumers to enhance, or, if necessary, to rebuild the trust they strive to enjoy.
 
Make these efforts and eventually – and I believe it will happen sooner rather than later – I will be able to say about the public’s confidence in what we do:
 
I told you so.