Last week, after much of the mainstream media worked itself into frenzy covering every angle of the Quran-burning story and the controversy over the proposed New York City Islamic community center, there was a moment of reflection in the press.
Journalists began investigating their own roles in fanning the fires of the controversies they were trying to cover. Memos swirled through newsrooms at the New York Times, Fox, and the AP discussing how to handle the story.
On NPR, Brooke Gladstone discussed the media’s coverage of the Quran-burning story. She said, “The problem for journalists was that in this political season, the story grew like a snowball rolling down a hill, and we have to take some responsibility for pushing it.” Over at the Poynter Institute, journalism ethics blogger Kelly McBride wrote, “One of the great flaws of modern journalism is the preference for dramatic developments and pithy commentary over context.”
At the same time, the ninth anniversary of Sept. 11 prompted others to reflect on current events in the context of a decade of news. Steve Yelvington’s post was perhaps the most powerful and eloquent. He wrote, “Nine years later we are a bitterly divided nation, bankrupted by seven years of war in Iraq and more than eight in Afghanistan, manipulated by political snake-oil salesmen into denying and abandoning the core values we profess to believe in order to protect the core values we profess to believe. [...] We have lost our shirts and we have lost our souls. I blame the news media.”
And he is not alone. It appears that an increasing number of Americans are growing frustrated with the mainstream media.
Last week, Al Tompkins wrote, “There is a blowback building out there. The public seems more skeptical, more aggravated and less tolerant of what we are reporting.” As part of Radio, Television and Digital News Association’s Newsroom Ethics project, Tompkins has spent the last ten years holding focus groups in more than 30 cities across the country. He said that at a recent Cincinnati focus group, local citizens told her that they “were growing impatient with journalists who don’t take them seriously. They said they wanted more coverage of serious political issues and they wanted a lot less crime news, unless the crime had real importance to a lot of people.”
J-Lab at American University heard similar feedback from citizens in Philadelphia.
All of this comes just a month after a Gallup poll revealed that “no more than 25 percent of Americans [say] they have a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in mainstream TV and print journalism.” As with other challenges facing journalism, there is a diverse matrix of influences eroding public trust in journalism. However, Terry Heaton pinpoints a key part of the problem in his response to the Gallup poll. He wrote, “News is a process, not a finished product, and the Web is making that perfectly clear these days. Trust in the process is different than trust in the finished product, and this is doubtless impacting overall views of trust in the press.”
We need to find ways to bring audiences into the process to rebuild trust and rethink journalism. This goes beyond crowd-sourcing and beyond the search for a new business model, to deeper forms of engagement that impact how reporters “do” journalism. There are several beacons to point to, including MediaBugs, which empowers audiences to dialogue with reporters to correct errors in stories; funding models like Spot.us, which help communities see what it takes to fund a story; and American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, which embodies and enacts the idea that the audience knows more than any one reporter.
These projects allow journalists and citizens to collaborate in recreating the news that better suits communities, and fosters an understanding of the process of creating quality journalism. I was glad to see such a public discussion emerge about journalists’ role in recent controversies this week. I hope that in the future, these discussions can happen earlier. This isn’t just about navel gazing; the stakes are high. In Cincinnati, Al Tompkins saw this first hand, noting that citizens “said directly, if we don’t listen, if we don’t start covering serious news in a serious way, they will leave us and they won’t come back.”