Publisher of Independent News and Media
(Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, The Herald, Belfast Telegraph, Sunday World...)
Photo by Frank Ruiter
Journalism has become more important than ever. But to win its readers’ trust, media must become more transparent. And yes, that is often scary.
Edelman considers four crucial dimensions with regard to trust: ability, integrity, dependability and purpose. Applied to the journalistic sphere, it involves the following:
Most journalists like to use dramatic language. Events are “historic”, numbers are “unprecedented”, consequences are “horrific”. Journalism, around the world, would sometimes be better off if we used words more precisely and language that is, frankly, a little bit less overblown. Having said that, in this article I shall use some big words, because this article is about big things. It’s about the nature of journalism itself and about trust in journalism and, closely linked to this, about trust in our democratic system and the rule of law.
It’s easy for me to remember the exact year I decided to become a journalist: it was 1976. I was 15 years old, and I was leaving a cinema in Bruges, the Belgian city where I grew up. I had just seen, for the third time that week and unknown to my parents (who would think I had lost my mind), “All The President’s Men”. For many journalists of my generation, this film about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigating the Watergate scandal, which forced US president Richard Nixon to step down, was a vocational awakening. I would become a journalist (yes, I saw myself as Robert Redford), and challenge the powers that be.
Forty-five years later and the world is slowly beginning to recover from another American president, Donald Trump. According to him, the media is the “the enemy of the people”. He introduced the term “fake news” into everyday language. His former advisor Kellyanne Conway explained to us that there were facts and there were “alternative facts”. The words and attitude of the most powerful leader in the Western world and his entourage were enthusiastically echoed not only by “strong men” in Russia, the Philippines and Turkey, but also by leaders of populist parties in European democracies.
During the Trump administration, it became clear to many people that we are fighting not only a pandemic but also a dangerous “infodemic”. In the world of social media, driven by powerful algorithms, there is less and less distinction between facts and fiction, between your truth and mine, between genuine and false. We are all living in the prison of our own news bubbles, where “our” truth is constantly being repeated and reinforced. At the same time, we are living in a world in which a handful of people in Silicon Valley can decide whether your voice is heard on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
In this world, journalism has become more important than ever before. The media’s difficult, and sometimes painful, search for the real facts and the nuanced truth is a crucial part of our society. When we no longer agree about what the facts are, how can we organise democratic society and how can we uphold the rule of law? All over the world, we need media organisations, journalists, editors, photographers, bloggers, publishers, producers and columnists who, in the midst of an infodemic, are searching for an information vaccine, even though they know they will never find perfect answers and realise that they fail every single day. Yet they have to try over and over again.
So, which journalists and media organisations should we trust and why should we trust them? Aren’t they also operating in their own bubble? Don’t they have an agenda too? Don’t they also make mistakes? Aren’t they in the business of making money? Aren’t they working under commercial pressures or according to ideological lines?
Of course. At Mediahuis, we increasingly realise that it would be very presumptuous for us to take the trust of our readers for granted. Just because we are part of a large European media company with renowned legacy brands, it doesn’t mean we can automatically rely on our readers’ trust. Sometimes the opposite can be true. We have to earn that trust, with everything that we do, every day. Above all, we are very well aware that trust comes on foot, but it leaves on horseback.
That is why we have decided to launch a trust programme within our group. Since trust is such a crucial part of what we do, we want to understand how we can enhance the trust of our readers in our editorial organisations, our brands and our journalism.
In the last quarter of 2020, we decided to launch a pilot project with three of our Irish brands: the Irish Independent (the biggest-selling daily in Ireland, Monday-Saturday); the Sunday Independent (the biggest Sunday newspaper in the country) and our website Independent.ie. To start building this project, we asked the Irish branch of Edelman, a communications firm founded in Chicago in 1952, to measure the level of trust in these brands. Twenty years ago, Edelman developed a Trust Barometer, an annual survey of the trust and credibility of the world’s four major institutions – government, business, media and NGOs.
I would suggest adding one more element in the context of trust in media: transparency. Media has been a black box for too long. Obviously, we have a duty to protect our sources, but this cannot be used as an excuse to avoid behaving in a much more transparent way. We just have to work harder to get our sources on the record (the number of anonymous sources in our papers is too high). We have to tell our readers/listeners/viewers what we did to get this story (How many people did we talk to? Where are the gaps?). We have to talk to our readers about our ethical standards (Did we accept a free stay in the hotel we are writing about?) and our methods (Do we pay for meals in the restaurants we review?). We have to admit and correct our errors clearly. We have to be open to answering questions from readers. We see ourselves as the watchdog, but we have to allow others to keep a close eye on that watchdog.
Enabling critics to look into our engine room could be painful for journalists and our media organisations. Nevertheless, I am convinced that if we work on our transparency, ability, integrity, dependability and purpose, we will increase trust. Stronger trust in journalism could be one of the essential ingredients of a better society.