Being trustworthy is essential to news organizations
In Our Opinion
It’s been said it can take years to build up trust, only to have it destroyed overnight by one small act.
In a column on PACE’s character trait for April, trustworthiness, Better Business Bureau communications specialist Matthew Sewell links the ability to establish trust with the way we use technology and all forms of media today. Sewell hypothesizes the more time we spend with media, the less time we dedicate to connecting with our peers face to face.
“By extension, it could be deduced that we are less likely to trust another person with our needs as a result,” Sewell writes.
It’s a valid argument. Especially if one fails to realize that in the media world, some outlets aren’t necessarily focused on providing the truth, but rather providing the truth as they see it.
As a news organization, we rely on the trust of our publics. Newsmakers trust us to be honest and balanced in our news reporting while readers trust us to be open and transparent with what we know and when we know it.
It’s not always easy and clear-cut. Trust is integral to the contents of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics: Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable.
There are many elements to seeking the truth and reporting it: accuracy, balance, questioning motives and making sure we create a sharp distinction between news reporting and opinion. The latter often gets blurred, and it can be news organizations doing the blurring, which hurts the ability to be trustworthy.
We are also expected to report on news even when it might be unpopular to do so, express unpopular opinions and allow those others might find repugnant. We’ve experienced the ramifications of both — professionally and personally, i.e. the 2010 Cheney School District construction bond issue.
In minimizing harm we “treat our sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving respect.” We empathize with the subjects of news coverage, remembering private individuals have a greater right to control information about themselves than public officials.
That’s one of the reasons why when we get a call about emergency vehicles at a location, we try to determine the nature of the emergency first before showing up flashing our press credentials.
The media is expected to act independently by avoiding conflicts of interest, real or perceived. We are to remain free of associations and activities that may compromise our integrity or credibility. That’s one of the reasons you don’t see us joining many organizations outside of those relating to our profession, or ones that aren’t likely to be involved in news making.
Finally, we are held accountable — to everybody. We invite dialogue on what we report, air grievances with what we write, admit and correct mistakes when we make them.
The preamble to SPJ’s code of ethics declares what most journalists should believe, “that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” That can only happen by being trustworthy.
We are not perfect, and never will be. But that does not mean that we don’t try. And as Sewell writes, “we never assume that there are no improvements to be made.”