How to make the media trustworthy | COMMENTARY

I wish I could say the public’s doubt in the news industry isn’t well founded, but as a news consumer myself, I feel the same confusion and distrust many other people feel toward the industry. Every time a journalist makes up sources for a story or a news anchor is caught lying on TV, the entire industry’s credibility takes a hit.

By Ray Still
rstill@courierherald.com

Ask any salesperson what they need to sell a product and they’ll say two things.

First, there must be a need for the product being sold.

Second, there has to be rapport between the company and the consumer.

The news industry is no different than a business in this sense. Information is a valuable commodity that will never depreciate, so the need for TV news stations and newspapers remains strong.

What the news industry doesn’t have is rapport. For many reasons, the public finds it hard to trust us.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, only 21 percent of Americans rated newspaper reporters as highly honest and ethical.

That’s just above lawyers and TV reporters (20 percent), cars salespeople (9 percent) and members of Congress (8 percent), and right below business executives (22 percent) and local officeholders (23 percent).

I’m no statistician, but those numbers don’t look too friendly for us, and it only gets worse.

According to the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of Americans said news stories are inaccurate.

(Note that these numbers refer to the news industry in general. When people were asked about their local or favorite news sources, 62 percent of Americans said news stories are accurate.)

Additionally, 77 percent of Americans said the news sources are politically biased, and 80 percent said the news is often influenced by people and organizations with deep pockets.

In short, these numbers make for a tough sell. Much of the public doesn’t trust the news industry, because they think our information isn’t accurate, it’s forwarding a political agenda or it’s censored and controlled.

I wish I could say the public’s doubt in the news industry isn’t well founded, but as a news consumer myself, I feel the same confusion and distrust many other people feel toward the industry. Every time a journalist makes up sources for a story or a news anchor is caught lying on TV, the entire industry’s credibility takes a hit.

But even though the industry is up against the ropes, there is still time to come back. All we need to do is earn back that public trust.

Think about other public services we rely on; doctors, teachers, police officers. Besides working for the public good, they have one other thing in common.

They’re accredited. Vouched for. Licensed. They’ve gone through rigorous study and testing to ensure they have the knowledge and skills necessary for serving the public.

(By the way, nurses, pharmacists, teachers and doctors top that Gallup list of most trusted professions. Coincidence?)

If the news industry is going to come back from this public relations nightmare, then we’ve got to earn that same level of credibility.

It should take more than a bachelors degree in liberal arts, a laminated press pass and a by-ine to be a journalist.

The industry needs to come together and create an independent, apolitical organization to oversee the development and accreditation of a new generation of educated, ethical and honest journalists.

Accrediting journalists would change the news industry in several ways.

First, a national organization can lead a coordinated effort to educate prospective journalists on media law, First Amendment rights and reporting ethics.

Passing an accreditation exam would be similar to a lawyer passing the bar exam, or a doctor’s medical exams. It’s a way to keep track of journalists who have taken the time and effort to educate themselves on the ever-changing news world.

As more journalists become accredited, we will see a shift in the industry’s attitude toward news, replacing the notion that news should be reported first and fact-checked later with the belief that the news should be more accurate than fast, and more honest than political.

The American public is tired of rapid-fire news reporting, where facts are shot out of a cannon at readers and viewers without context or a knowledge base. They want accurate and honest reporting, even if that means getting their news a little slower.

Unfortunately, the heads of the news industry have gone in the opposite direction.

In an attempt to staunch the slow but deadly bleeding of the industry, many reporters and journalists have lost their jobs so newspapers and TV stations can stay financially afloat.

This only makes it harder for remaining journalists to gather and report accurate information. Some newspapers and news stations may be in the financial black, but if responsibility could be recorded in a ledger, we’d be deep in the red.

The news industry shouldn’t be treated like a business, and the bottom line shouldn’t be about money.

It should be about trust, ethics and honesty. Those are the ideas the public wants the news industry to adhere to.

If we as journalists hold ourselves to that standard on a national level, and find a way to make us more accountable and trustworthy, the public will start believe in the fourth estate again.

Ray Still is a reporter for the Enumclaw Courier-Herald. He can be reached at rstill@courierherald.com or 360-825-2555 ext. 5058.

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