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How the media lost the public’s trust — and how they’ll earn it back

(Note: I wrote this post for LinkedIn, with whom I did a video interview on these topics)

A tangle of questions troubles journalists these days: Why are we so distrusted? Can we survive the loss of the advertising that supports us? How do we stand up against the control that behemoths like Facebook and Google have over our futures? And what do we do about the growing assaults on truth telling from bots and hackers, viral deception and foreign meddling – let alone our own president?

I want to add this to the tangle: How can we bring these questions to you? And how can we bring you into the discussions? I want to do this because I worry that, unless journalism matters to the people it exists to serve, it may not exist at all for long. So, if you think that being able to count on a fundamentally reliable supply of information in the public interest is critical to you and to our democracy, here are four things I’d ask you to think about:

  1. Journalists increasingly (I could add, belatedly) understand that we need to do a better job of serving the public’s needs. There are scores of efforts underway to get at the question of how to win the public trust. Some are focused on being more transparent or more inclusive of different viewpoints and voices. Others emphasize listening better and engaging with their communities in creating the news. There is a recommitment to ensuring that journalism is fair, balanced, verifiable and proportional, as well as a new awareness that we must focus not just on what goes wrong, but on the equally newsworthy (and hope-inspiring) things that go right. Perhaps most important, there is a growing understanding that we must direct our fast dwindling resources toward watchdogging government and business, probing the dark corners of poverty and injustice, and providing the basic information needed for effective citizenship.
  2. You – Mr. and Ms. Public – also have a responsibility, one that is unfamiliar to most: to be the curators of your own media diet. Until recently, news simply came to you (for free or cheaply), and you received it. Nobody felt the need to teach her kid how to be mindful of seeking the balanced diet that would produce civic health, choosing what was best for her, demanding better when it didn’t satisfy. Now that the top-down model is gone, it’s little wonder that we live in a chaotic world of half-truths and worse, or that we have trouble figuring out what information came from where — whether the author was a trustworthy source or a kid in Macedonia making a buck off our gullibility. All of us now shape our common news world through the choices we make about what to read or watch or view – and about what we write or share or like. But few of us understand how potent that responsibility is.
  3. If news is going to survive, it will be because the public views it as a civic good, a democratic necessity, and thus is willing to support it. We know that education is essential to a self-governing people, so we fund public schools. We know that human beings need art, so we pony up for admission. Our journalism has long been paid for by advertisers – you, the reader/viewer/listener were the product, not the customer, which made things run effectively but also had some unfortunate aspects, such as disconnecting journalists from readers. Now that advertising tied to news is collapsing, and unlikely ever to return to its previously vigorous state, someone is going to have to pay for this often costly thing that is original journalism. Philanthropy has a role (community foundations, for example, as well as wealthy individuals), and we are already seeing it come into play. But I am convinced that the best journalism will be the journalism that is supported in substantial part by those whom it serves.
  4. Journalists’ failures, and the public’s obliviousness to the challenges, have contributed to the parlous state of news today. But there are other potent forces arrayed against the public’s ability to receive a reliable and fair-minded news report. Powerful critics, backed by individuals of enormous wealth who feel inconvenienced by a free and independent press, seek to weaken it. Intrusions from other nations, as well as individuals making money off falsehoods and deceptions, thrive in the largely human-judgment-free zones of our social-media platforms. Facebook and Google may at long last have acknowledged that they are indeed in the business of providing information – along with the viral deception that infests it – but their responses to date are baby steps. Meanwhile, they sap advertising from traditional journalism organizations, and strip them of their ability to project their own brands – a huge challenge to building trust (not to mention to building an economic model). Extremist publications, poor in truth but rich in demagoguery, render the essential democratic necessity of coming together around common facts a near impossibility. These forces, arrayed against the time-honored notion that “the truth will out,” are not sufficiently understood. And they are far from being adequately addressed.

It’s clear that Americans widely distrust institutions generally, and media organizations in particular. And we seem intent on dividing bitterly along partisan lines, putting our faith (such as it is) in different news sources. So maybe an appeal to join in a common effort seems doomed. But I’m talking about something well beyond today’s dissatisfying landscape. What if you truly felt that there was no source of information that you could rely on to sort fact from fiction? No one to turn to, in a disaster, to find out what really happened? No source you trusted to certify a quote, or a death toll, or determine whether your city council had passed a law that will change your life?

Such a situation is far from unimaginable today. Indeed, I think I can see it on the horizon. And the main thing standing between now and that looming possibility is whether the public begins to see it, too.

 

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