Audience and media: Can this marriage be saved?

November 19, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

Reuters recently hosted a panel at our New York headquarters called “Audience and the Media: A Shaky Marriage.” I was on the panel with a distinguished group: Lisa Shepard, ombudsman of National Public Radio; Andrew Alexander, ombudsman of The Washington Post; and Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor of The Associated Press. Jack Shafer, editor-at-large of Slate, was the moderator.

The key question we explored was: “How can mainstream news organizations retain (or regain) their audiences’ trust in a skeptical world where almost anyone with an Internet connection can be a publisher?” It will come as no surprise that we did not answer the question definitively in the 75 minutes we were on stage. However, a number of questions–some quite troubling–were raised. Rather than attempt to summarize all the points raised and positions taken by the panelists and the audience, I’ll explore some of the questions raised in my mind.

–Why do people mistrust the media and whose fault is it?

Much of the fault lies with the mainstream media. For far too many years, news organizations had an arrogant, one-way relationship with our audiences. We gathered news, packaged it in ways we thought made sense and shoveled it out to our audiences. If you liked what we delivered, fine. If not, well, you could always write a letter to the editor of the newspaper where you saw the story. Now I think the balance is much better. Feedback is instantaneous, transparency is the norm and our readers can also be publishers on their own.

On the other hand, much of the distrust is not our fault. Discourse–certainly in the United States– has become far more polarized and news consumers are seeking out news sources that support their own politics or world view. That makes it especially difficult for those of us who pride ourselves on being independent and free of bias. Readers sometimes see bias when a news report doesn’t support their particular world view.

Let’s remember that the idea of an unbiased and independent press is relatively new. Many news consumers around the world choose a news outlet that reflects their world view. I worry that a large cohort of news consumers now expect that–and prefer it.

–Can journalists rise above their political beliefs to provide unbiased coverage?

I believe they can, they do and they must. That is the essence of being a professional reporter.

However, we don’t do ourselves any favors when we use social media like Facebook and Twitter to express opinions on politics or policy issues, then find that we have to cover the issues we’re sounding off about. As we advise our journalists at Reuters, social media have made our public and private personae virtually indistinguishable–and we have to expect that anything we say in social media is public information. Journalists shouldn’t engage in public activity–either online or offline–that could call into question their ability to report a story fairly.

That said, I do believe that journalists can have strong political, religious and social views and still cover their beats with independence and freedom from bias. Again, that’s the essence of professionalism. The flip side is that when bias is evident, we have to expect that our audience will be vocal in pointing it out.

–Dealing with audience comments.

As someone who writes a column/blog, I have to confess that reading the comments that come in can be wearying. There are always those who use the comments section–no matter what the topic–as a proxy for delivering a political message.

Nowhere is this more evident than when I write about the Middle East. There’s a substantial number of people who will never, ever believe that Reuters journalists can set aside personal views and report fairly and objectively from, say, Gaza.

I worry that sometimes comments amount not to a discussion, but, as Lisa Shepard put it, “shouting at the television set.”

I think we’re better off having comments than not, but they are a challenge to monitor and moderate. Here are some questions to think about–and comment on! (1) Should comment authors be required to sign their real name and provide contact information that would be used to confirm their identity, but not be published? (2) Would it be better to continue to allow anonymity, but put all comments one click away from the original material; that is, provide a link that would take you to a separate comments page? (3) SHOULD ENTRIES IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS BE BANNED?

–What ever happened to the golden age of journalism?

Let me declare my true colors here: I’m a card-carrying optimist.

I’m suspicious of this nostalgia for a so-called golden age of journalism. Show me when it was. Journalists today are better educated than ever before. We have research and newsgathering tools that are far faster and more powerful. We can deliver news faster and more efficiently to readers and viewers than ever before.

In the supposed good old days–before the Internet, before the democratization of publishing–it was easier and more common to hide mistakes, to suppress stories, to be pressured by the powerful. The new transparency makes it much harder to control the flow of news in the way that presidents, prime ministers and other powerful institutions could do in earlier times.

Sure, the democratization of publishing has resulted in a cacophony of sources, with varying degrees of credibility. But that’s where we in the mainstream media have a responsibility to engage in the fray and promote the journalistic values we live by. We must continue to shed the arrogance and share the standards and values that give us credibility.

This can be the golden age.

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