OpEd: Survival mode — Reversing the course of journalism

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

Don't trust the media signNews organizations across the country face a daunting task: show news consumers that journalists want to earn their trust while satisfying demands from corporate management to rake in revenue any way possible. With conglomeration and increasing audience fragmentation, it’s hard to convince consumers that the mainstream media is, indeed, trustworthy.

And, a newly released NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll gave another blistering account of how many Americans simply don’t trust journalists. In that poll, 37 percent of adults said they did not trust the news media “at all.” Only 8 percent of adults polled said they trust the media “a great deal.” That’s disheartening! It is time for media companies to stop listening to consultants eager to turn newsrooms into nothing more than entertainment.

Journalists across the country — not just on the national scale — need to begin earning back the respect of people across the country. If not, journalism cannot survive as we know it today.

Last year, a Gallup poll showed American’s trust in news organizations is at its lowest level since the organization began doing poll research. And, it’s not just the younger demographic. Older Americans lack confidence in news media now, as well. So what are journalists doing to make a change?

Gallop Poll confidence in media
Source: Gallup graphic

Consumers see many journalists as lazy. For example, the recent firing of three CNN employees for their failure to follow company editorial processes again sheds light on the trust issue. CNN later redacted the story relating to alleged President Trump’s ties to Russian investment fund in which a single anonymous source was cited. We must do better.

In an era when government officials are waiting to pounce on the slightest slip-up of reporters and editors, journalists must ensure this type of breakdown never occurs. Journalists must follow ethical standards and assure consumers of properly fact-checking, as the Society of Professional Journalists vehemently encourages through its Code of Ethics.

Readers and viewers demand the trust.

Some believe news organizations have gotten away from reporting of impactful news to only care about the aesthetic appeal. For local broadcast news outlets, using flashy graphics, inserting silly videos that have gone viral on social media platforms, and including inconsequential features is another part of the problem. Journalists must provide a reason for consumers to watch — and to trust them. We’ve gotten too far from news values.

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Michael Oreskes, NPR

Last November, the Columbia Journalism Review contributor Michael Oreskes shared a few ideas for journalists who are wanting to rebuild trust. In the article, Oreskes suggested journalists must find ways to include different perspectives. Reporters must also engage news consumers “across the spectrum of views and backgrounds.” We must get away from opinionated reporting — like you find on those 24-hour news networks like FOX News and MSNBC. Let consumers make up their own minds based on solid reporting.

It is encouraging to see major newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post take on the Trump administration with meticulous, investigative reporting. ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS are uncovering stories at a rapid pace each day — many of those reports to the chagrin of the Trump White House. Providing substance to reporting is an important step toward building trust among those who view journalists in a negative way. Local news outlets should be at the forefront of connecting with audiences. But, we must be smart in the way we engage our audiences.

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Jack Kuenzie, WIS-TV

Jack Kuenzie has worked in television news for 43 years. He is the Senior Reporter for WIS-TV in Columbia, South Carolina, and believes solid investigative reporting is the answer to solving local journalism’s woes.

“I’m quite worried about whether our profession will be able to rebuild trust with news consumers,” said Kuenzie. “Solid work from institutions like The New York Times, Washington Post and NPR are being instantly labeled “fake” and written off as part of a political agenda. We have to value truth more than winning.

Some of the problems lie within TV station management and those in charge at the top. Some of these managers are quick to write-off solid journalism; rather, they believe entertainment-style reporting is what draws in money. Perhaps it does. But, Kuenzie argues what shows up in local news rundowns is largely a function of what has gotten attention that day — oftentimes on social media — and is seen as a way to increase viewer engagement. But, that type of engagement doesn’t always help journalists rebuild credibility.

“We do that by making the story crystal clear about what is at stake for viewers and doing so through people they can relate to.” – Jack Kuenzie

On the other hand, investigative journalism, especially on the local scale, plays a huge part in garnering trust. “When we do investigative stories, it’s up to us to make people care,” Kuenzie said.

“We do that by making the story crystal clear about what is at stake for viewers and doing so through people they can relate to.”

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Cindy Elmore. ECU

And, it is essential for news consumers to believe what they read and to know it is credible. Cindy Elmore, a professor at East Carolina University’s School of Communication, recently provided some ways consumers can differentiate between real and “fake” news:

  • Real journalists give their real names and real contact information — not blog handles that offer no way to learn anything about their identity, much less the credentials or partisan ties of the writer.
  • Real journalists go out of their way to include knowledgeable sources on both (or all) sides of an issue. They do not generally get to include their own opinions in what they write, unless the piece is clearly marked as such.
  • Real journalists have editors who act as a line of defense to ask for verification, edit for clarity and fairness, and sometimes demand more reporting.
  • Real journalists recognize they should interact with readers and viewers, as  their limited time allows. They don’t mutely hide behind websites.
  • Real journalists work at news organizations where advertisers do not have the power to influence news stories.

Elmore’s guidelines on “fake” news can be found in her article in The News & Observer entitled “Fight Fake News by Backing Real Journalism.”

It will be a long road to solidifying trust in all news media. It is imperative journalists point out their own shortcomings while providing news consumers with ways to engage. That engagement, though, must be done with news organizations that have the best interests of its consumers in mind — not just the bottom line for the company. Journalists must seek out impactful, investigative stories on the local scale. They must also provide ways to draw upon different perspectives in our diverse society.

Right now, trust in news organizations is bleak; however, with any luck, news outlets will realize that basic journalistic principles articulated by the Society of Professional Journalists can move committed news outlets in a positive direction.

The opinion pieces from columnists who contribute for SPJ Region 3’s SizingUpTheSouth.com is a reflection of their own personal views and may not reflect the views of the Society of Professional Journalists. 


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. Baxley is a regular contributor to the SPJ Region 3 website, SizingUpTheSouth.com.