Building Trust: Let’s get back to the basics

By David Baxley, Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, SPJ South Carolina member

Journalists are beholden to our Founding Fathers for entrusting reporters to be society’s torchbearers. Since the First Amendment was ratified in 1791, that responsibility has not been diminished. For veteran and student journalists, now is the time to reignite the flame that has been burning since Benjamin Franklin’s New England Courant in 1721. That fiery passion of seeking truth and reporting it enables an informed democracy. The flame, though, has seemingly dimmed in the past decade or so due to conglomeration, concentration of ownership and corporate monopolies. That fervor should spark a conversation in today’s journalism circle at a time when trust in the media has hit an all-time low.

So, how do multimedia newsrooms bring back trust to stay relevant?

Rob Martin, News Director at WIAT 42 News in Birmingham, Alabama, believes newsrooms must remember the basics to remain relevant in today’s world of multimedia journalism.  Photo by Lillian Lalo/WIAT

News organizations need to do a better job serving local communities. Rob Martin, a news director of 22 years, believes news outlets need to recommit themselves to the values of the trade.

“There is so much information accessible 24-hours a day. Much of that information being reported doesn’t follow the basic rules of journalism. There’s a lack of reporting both sides of the story, gathering all of the facts and investigating corruption,” he said.

And, he’s right. What happened to the days of reporting on failing schools, investigating tainted water, questioning city council members, looking into candidates’ backgrounds and examining flaws in governmental policies? Don’t get me wrong, reporters pound the payment each day. But more investigative-style reporting is needed. Asking the tough questions and digging deeper into important matters are essential to building trust. It shows reporters are working on behalf of the communities they serve.

 Naquela Kirk, John Kelley, Stephon Dingle and Rob Martin collaborate at an editorial meeting at WIAT 42 News. Through creative storytelling, news staff works to cover stories which have the most local impact.   Photo by Lillian Lalo/WIAT

Martin, who leads the news staff at WIAT-TV 42 News in Birmingham, Alabama, believes going back to your introduction to reporting courses in college may be the answer.

“It is up to local newsrooms to be dedicated to following editorial checklists. For example, are we covering both sides of the story, are we interviewing people that are affected by the story?” said Martin. “As journalists, have we answered the Who, What, When, Where and Why?”

Some argue though, it may not be so simple in today’s world.

News or entertainment?

The line between entertainment and news has blurred. And it’s not pretty. Gatekeepers, who are deciding what stories appear in newscasts and in newspapers, need to be retrained. They are allowing stories on the Kardashians, the Bachelorette and Justin Bieber into newscasts, on front pages of newspapers and atop media websites. This type of reporting has found its way onto social media platforms as “news” — not entertainment. The merging line between entertainment and news has been happening for quite a while. Why should newsrooms relinquish journalistic integrity for this rubbish entertainment news?

Walter Cronkite

Do you think Walter Cronkite became a trusted news anchor by devoting the evening news copy to Hollywood shenanigans? No. Cronkite won the respect of his viewers by reporting on events people cared about — the JFK assassination, Vietnam, Apollo 11, the civil rights movement, Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. Cronkite understood the responsibility.

News media must be accountable. They must admit their mistakes. That accountability is the tool by which journalists can recapture the trust of consumers again! Reporters should be focused on news which makes a difference in the lives of people and their communities. That is the only way the media is going to again connect with a skeptical public. Journalism instructors are instrumental in encouraging students to care about solid writing and reporting skills — in the same way Cronkite cared. The passion should start long before students land their first job at the media company.

Newsrooms need more diversity

Charlotte Area Association of Black Journalists photo

News organizations need to  recognize the issue of diversity in newsrooms. Varied viewpoints come from those with a diverse background — women and men, straight and  gay, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Christian and Muslim. A survey completed in the summer of 2016 by the American Society of News Editors revealed only 17 percent of the newsroom staff were people of color. News organizations must do a better job recruiting and hiring minorities.

It is time to do some soul-searching. Where do journalists want to be in five or 10 years? Are reporters fulfilling the hope our Founding Fathers articulated in the First Amendment? Are new organizations looking for those connections and niches that make them stand out?

Through investigative, diversified, locally-driven stories, journalists will once again return to their highly-regarded stature in society.

It is time to start rebuilding trust in the news media, one story at a time.

David Baxley

David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and a SPJ South Carolina member. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years.