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Clearing the darkening cloud of mistrust around journalists

As research shows that Americans are less trusting of the media, journalists need to regain their audience respect.

Last Modified: 15 Aug 2013 12:52
Michele Weldon

Michele Weldon is an author and assistant professor of journalism at The Medill School of Northwestern University and a fellowship leader with the OpEd Project.
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"The show [the Newsroom] is built on the premise that journalism has become the pig trough of professions. In the real world, it will take bullet-proof content...to compensate for lost credibility," writes Weldon [Getty Images]

Like the blowhard, opinionated relative no one wants to sit near at a family reunion, journalists are considered biased, partisan and inaccurate, but necessary.

The report last week from Pew Research Center for The People & The Press showed that only 19 percent of Americans polled said the media is fair to all sides. About a quarter (or 26 percent) said journalists get their facts straight, compared to 55 percent feeling that way in 1985. That's a 54 percent drop in a sense of accuracy.

Yet 68 percent of those polled agreed that journalists as watchdogs keep politicians in line - a 17 percent increase since 2011. About half, or 54 percent, said journalists are more important today in order to make sense out of the news.

Why the darkening cloud of mistrust around journalists?

Fiction may offer an answer. In its third season this summer, Aaron Sorkin's HBO TV series, "The Newsroom," stars Jeff Daniels as an idealistic Will McAvoy who in an earlier episode delivered this manifesto on the utter demise of journalists' credibility: "I was an accomplice to the slow and repeated, unacknowledged and unammended train wreck of failures that brought us to now."  

The dramatic tension of the show is built on the premise that journalism has become the pig trough of professions. As crusaders, McAvoy and his team will bring respect back to the industry.

In the real world, it will take bullet-proof content, bulldog reporting and ethical towing of the line to compensate for lost cred. 

Every blog, article, podcast, newscast or soundbyte posted in real time with the incorrect names, wrong facts, accusations or flat out mistakes contribute to the undermining of the profession. And while it is true that every professional in every field is fallible, it is the collective sense of a disregard for high standards that now more than ever before erodes a journalist's station in society.  

New studies show members of the long-ago revered press corps in this country are only a few notches above used car salesmen, but below starving artists as far as credibility goes. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to ascertain that military personnel, teachers, doctors, scientists, engineers and clergy have higher rankings as contributors to society, according to a recent report from Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Slightly more than a quarter - 27 percent - of Americans polled said journalists "contribute nothing to society's well-being". In the past four years, Americans' view of journalists' contribution to society has dropped 26 percent.

Women have lowered their view of journalists' contribution by 37 percent. In the 18-49 year old range, confidence in journalists dropped from 39 percent to 32 percent from 2009 to this year. The lowest level of confidence in journalists' positive contribution comes from Americans 50 and older, with only 24 percent saying journalists contribute a lot to society.

There is good reason for the further fall from grace. While it has been 10 years since the Jayson Blair/New York Times plagiarism scandal that led to his career crash and the resignation of two top editors, since 2010 we have seen accusations of plagiarism or fabrication in all spectrums of respectable platforms and outlets.  

Gerald Posner at The Daily Beast copied five sentences from a published article, and Jonah Lehrer at the New Yorker fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan proving the times are not a-changing.

The phone hacking/ bribery/ corruption scandal at the United Kingdom's News of The World involved journalists regularly tapping conversations for news and has helped dimmed the halos of journalists for many.

Similarly, the Bloomberg News discovery earlier this year of misuse of financial terminal information by reporters showed reporters breached digital data intended for paying clients to hunt for news. And very recently the Chicago Tribune issued an apology for a page one story about a veteran and his sight dog; because it turns out the man wasn't a veteran at all. The reporter never checked.

As far back as 2006, a study by Medill School of Journalism colleagues reported that 53 percent of journalists surveyed noted "a problem with unethical or unprofessional behaviour in the newsroom". Forty five percent said at some time they suspected a peer of plagiarism, and only 34 percent said their newsroom actively corrects or reviews the mistakes or misconduct of reporters.

A Gallup poll last year rated the honesty and ethics of professions, and compared the responses gathered since 1976. Rated below police officers and chiropractors, but above governors, lawyers and members of Congress, journalists are perceived to have "very high" standards of honesty and ethics by only 24 percent of Americans polled. That's a distinct drop from a high of 33 percent who felt that way in 1976; but an increase from a low in 2000 of 21 percent of Americans reporting the same confidence on journalists' ethics.  

There are many factors that got journalists here - unvetted sources, carelessness with facts, plagiarism, fabrication, a drive to be first on all platforms and content created by stakeholders and disguised as news - all existing in spite of the expectation of industry standards.  

No wonder most Americans think journalists are scum.

It may surprise many that audiences in several countries in the Middle East rate trust in media higher than Americans do. A study of media use in eight nations by Northwestern University in Qatar involves the responses of more than 10,000 participants.

The results show that in Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt between 24 and 27 percent say they believe the news media is credible, a rate comparable to the trust Americans have in journalists. The study reports that the highest level of confidence in the news media is in Saudi Arabia, where 74 percent of those polled said the news media is credible.

If some audiences in the Middle East believe more readily what they see, read and hear in the media, why is that American audiences are routinely more skeptical of the news they ingest? Perhaps it is a case of the American audience feeling they have been fooled more than twice.

Maybe journalists need to be more proactive about incorporating integrity on deadline. A recent column on the future of digital journalism education from the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard touted the needs to teach students the newest skillset, but neglected to mention even once one important word: Ethics.  

It is true that professionals can recover following a fall from grace - Anthony Weiner not withstanding - but for journalists, the best advice is to maintain transparency and work as hard as humanly possible not to stumble and fall in the first place.

With a legacy of bad reputations, every working journalist owes it to the audience to hold ourselves and our peers to our own published standards, so we can at least earn back lost respect.

Michele Weldon has taught journalism on the graduate and undergraduate levels at The Medill School, Northwestern University since 1996. She is an author, journalist, senior leader with The OpEd Project and director of the Northwestern Public Voices Fellowship.

You can follow Michele on Twitter @micheleweldon

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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