Feb 222017

Attacks on the news media are nothing new, especially from American presidents. Even that vocal defender of a free press, Thomas Jefferson, had it up to here on occasion with newspapers and “the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them.” Richard Nixon’s famous “enemies list” included more than 50 print and broadcast reporters targeted for reprisals. But Donald Trump’s assault on journalism is different and more dangerous.

Unlike his predecessors, Trump isn’t just calling the news media his enemy. And, unlike his predecessors, he’s not doing it in private.

Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter who helped break the Watergate story, told CNN Trump’s attack on the news media is more treacherous than Nixon’s. “We’ve never seen in an American president such open authoritarian moves and rhetoric,” he said.

What’s the right response for newsrooms and for individual journalists? Many have taken to social media to assure the public they’re not the enemy. (Full disclosure: I changed my Facebook cover photo to make the same point.) It makes you feel better to say it, but only for a minute. It’s kind of like responding to a playground taunt of “Are too!” by shouting back “Am not!”

The real question is, what now?

CBS News anchor Scott Pelley says the answer is to keep doing the work we’ve always done. “Our job is unchanged, it is the same. Find the facts, present the truth, let the audience know what our process is.” And in an interview on the podcast Pod Save the World, Yahoo anchor Katie Couric warns journalists not to get sucked into personal battles with Trump  (Start at 6:00 in.)

That seems right to me. The news media has a much bigger and more important job to do: to regain the public’s trust. The current administration’s assault on journalism plays into a public mood that has been souring for well over a decade. No one goes into journalism to be liked (or at least they shouldn’t), but trust and respect are crucial for us to do the job the public needs us to do, and we have to earn them back.

ABC’s Martha Raddatz believes “thorough, honest reporting” is the way to do it. It’s essential, certainly, but I don’t think it’s sufficient.

Here are a few additional suggestions:

  • Treat the people we cover and the audience with respect.
  • Stop blaming everyone else for the mess we’re in. It’s not the Internet’s fault, it’s not the explosion of outlets posing as news sources. It’s us
  • Explain what we do and why we do it. Admit it and apologize when we’re wrong.
  • Cover important news and do it in an interesting way. Stop spending so much time chasing celebrities and clickbait.

That list comes from a keynote speech I delivered at an SPJ conference 16 years ago.

Perhaps we could ask the audience for a little help. This new video from MediaTory, a Polish journalism group that recognizes good work, makes a good point.

“We’ve created this campaign to make people smarter in using media,” project coordinator Wiola Klytta told me by email. “We wanted to say them: you decide what’s on the top, you decide what media are talking about. You click, you choose a channel = you are a journalist, because you affect on popularity of the text. If you are dissatisfied with news, you can blame you and your curiosity.
“We want people use media more consciously and responsibly,” she said. “We hope to get them know, that they are significant influencers – from their choices depends quality of media reports.”

There’s a lot of work to do. Let’s get started!

Update: WCBS Radio’s Steve Scott, president of the New York Press Club adds via Twitter: “Don’t be afraid to stand up for our profession.” Here’s the letter the group sent Trump after his “enemy of the American people” tweet.


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