Are Distrust and Business Models Changing Journalism?
New forces are threatening journalism and forcing writers and editors to adapt to a new set of norms.
It’s a tough time to be a journalist or editor in magazine media—not that it was ever easy. But with waves of layoffs occurring seemingly daily, and the consolidation of brands, and a business model under siege, it seems more difficult than ever. Add to the fact that the press has been attacked (even physically) regularly over the last year by what seems like half the politicians in the country—a charge led by the current White House administration. (It’s no wonder media roles, such as broadcasters and newspaper reporters, land in the top 10 of the most stressful jobs in 2017.)
The result of this ire from public officials has led to an historical distrust of the press. Last year, Gallup found only 32% of respondents to its national poll had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. It’s the lowest mark, since Gallup began taking the measure in 1972. Meanwhile, trends, like the rise of fake news, have aided in sowing this distrust. A HarvardHarris poll found that 65% of respondents believed mainstream media publishes fake news.
With all this negativity and distrust flying towards news organizations, we talked with writers and editors to see how it has changed the way they do their job.
A Journalist Is Hyperaware of the Moment
In many ways, all these different layers of attacks are nothing new. “It’s not as though journalists were immensely popular before,” says Adrienne LaFrance, a technology writer for The Atlantic. But journalist and editors have to take different approaches to promoting and supporting stories.
“I think journalists have to anticipate that a lot of people are not going to immediately trust what you publish,” says Michael Calderone, a senior media reporter at The Huffington Post.
This puts more emphasis on the writer and editor to show the work in terms of how he or she came to find the story and developed the conclusions or insight that the news brings. “[It’s] not just telling people you’re doing a good job, but showing them,” Calderone adds.
“I’m seeing it a lot more in written pieces where the reporter actually explains how she knows something; how she found something out,” says Ray Suarez, a freelance writer who is a 40-year veteran of the industry and former host of “Inside Story” at the now defunct Al-Jazeera America.
Where this gets tricky is with anonymous sources. It’s an issue that President Donald Trump has attacked often, including in a series of tweets in May, saying “Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names, it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!”
LaFrance says she understands the distrust of anonymous sourcing. “When I was a journalism student, I remember having thought I’ll be the kind of reporter that never needs anonymous sources.” But, she continues, the “reality of the job” requires the use of anonymous sources at times, particularly when dealing with sensitive information.
The onus is on the writer and editor to carefully weigh whether to utilize an anonymous source. Top news organizations have these conversations daily. It’s also hard to tell if this is truly something readers attack the press for, or if it’s just easy to grasp onto by critics. After all, trust in the media was highest in 1976, which followed the Watergate reporting, where the most famous anonymous source ever—Deep Throat—became a household name.
Either way, it’s important to remember that readers are “going to be looking at you through the lens of distrust,” says Elizabeth Jensen, NPR’s ombudsman and public editor.
They’re Careful About Talking Back
Unlike the past, critics can express their distrust through Twitter or other social media channels. This has added an extra wrinkle, as journalists can use social platforms to break news but also have to remain ever vigilant about how to respond on those platforms.
“I don’t think Twitter is the best forum, because you have such a limited amount of space,” says Calderone. “But if someone asks a legitimate question about a story, like why the use of an anonymous source, it can help public perception if you can support your decisions,” he adds.
Calderone also warns against interacting with trolls. “It can feel like asymmetrical warfare sometimes,” since journalists are contained by the facts they can support while “debating someone who’s not bound to facts or restrictions.”
On social media journalists also have the opportunity to fight against fake news by reducing the amount it’s shared. That requires the extra duty of sharing only content that comes from supported material or from a source that properly vets information. It also means first reading anything that you share.
“Twitter is a publishing platform,” says LaFrance. You should take the same care as you do when “publishing to the CMS of your news organization. It may be a little more fun on Twitter or conversational, but the standards are the same.”
They’re Not Changing Their Tactics
In reality, for most journalists, the job remains just like it was prior to the increase in distrust and the proliferation of fake news. Joe Pompeo, senior media reporter at Politico, says his day-to-day job hasn’t changed at all. “On a basic level, the job is what it always is,” LaFrance agrees. “Seek the truth and report it.”
“There is a certain obligation on the news consumer these days,” adds Jensen. “At some point it’s incumbent on the news consumer to inform themselves on which news outlet is trustworthy.”
And quality journalists need the help of news consumers to dissipate the cloud of distrust, as well.