Who Do You Trust? Not the media, despite all our efforts….

SHEESH! Maybe we should throw in the towel….

The Washington News Council’s mission since 1998 has been to help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media. But today trust in the media is at record low levels. We’ve failed!

We were just named “Organization of the Year” by the Municipal League. But perhaps we should give the award back. All our work seems to have been in vain.

That was clear from a depressing Seattle CityClub conversation last Friday (April 22) in the Rainier Tower. The topic: “Who Do You Trust?” The answer: No one trusts anybody very much.

Moderated by C.R. Douglas of The Seattle Channel, the panel included Tim Burgess, Seattle City Councilman; Hank Campher, senior vice president for corporate social responsibility of Edelman; Mike Fancher, former executive editor of The Seattle Times, and Abdullahi Jama, board member of OneAmerica.

Diane Douglas, executive director of CityClub, opened the program with a summary of CityClub’s “Community Matters Campaign” which this year focused on how much people trust government, police, neighborhoods, other individuals, and the media.

“In all areas, there is a call for greater trust,” she said. True, but the lack of trust in the media is especially discouraging to me. After all, the media cover all other segments of society. If we can’t trust them, we’re in deep trouble.

“Why are the media so hated in this country?” was C.R. Douglas’s provocative opening question to Mike Fancher:

“We haven’t done a very good job of explaining what our motives are, what our methods are, and why we make mistakes,” Fancher said. (NOTE: That’s what the Washington News Council has been saying for 13 years.) He noted that journalism still should follow those “old traditional standards” of accuracy, fairness, and professionalism. (NOTE: Ditto.) But  he said the explosion of online media has made that more difficult, while diluting the old media’s traditional role as trusted news gatekeepers.

“Journalists struggle with this notion that they don’t have control anymore,” Fancher said. Since he retired from The Times, Fancher has promoted the admirable concept of “Public Trust Through Public Engagement,” encouraging citizens to get more involved with their news sources to help serve communities better.

Campher of Edelman, which does an indispensable annual Global Trust Barometer, said that when it comes to news, the “Number 1 place of trust is a Google search.” People want to see a wide variety of sources rather than relying on just a few. “Engage around transparency,” he said. “You can’t hide anything these days.”

C.R. Douglas asked Fancher why hyperlocal neighborhood news sites, such as the West Seattle Blog, seem to be more trusted than traditional news sources. Fancher said it’s due to greater public involvement: “Hyperlocals are in and of their communities. There’s that rich engagement.”

Tim Burgess added that many public officials now provide their own news through websites and blogs, bypassing traditional media. “We’re subject to how they package and present the news,” he said, but elected officials have more control of their own sites.

Of the commercial media, TV news had the lowest trust level in the CityClub’s survey. “People are tired of the sensationalism and fear-mongering,” Diane Douglas said.

However, Fancher noted that in other surveys, local TV news rated higher than print publications in credibility and trust, and that most Americans still get most of their news from television.

In the Q&A session, I noted that all the panelists had used the words transparency, accountability and openness as keys to trust in government, business, police and other institutions.

The WNC is now promoting the “TAO of Journalism,” urging journalists of all kinds to publicly pledge to be Transparent, Accountable and Open, and display a seal online or in print.

Wouldn’t journalists be more trusted, I asked, if they agreed to voluntarily follow those simple principles – which is, after all, exactly what they demand of every other institution in society?

No one disagreed. If more journalists would “Just TAO It,” they might be more trusted. And the concept is gaining traction, especially among young journalists. So maybe it’s not time to give up hope quite yet….


About John Hamer
JOHN HAMER is President of the Washington News Council, an independent forum for media fairness that he co-founded in 1998. Hamer was formerly Associate Editorial-Page Editor at The Seattle Times and previously Associate Editor with Congressional Quarterly/Editorial Research Reports in Washington, D.C. Read more about John or read John's blog posts.