MEDIA BRANDS: News media should work together to find a way to establish trust and protect its image

Hardly a week passes without some report on the tattered state of American journalism's image. More times than not, these reports cite the past year's scandals involving Jayson Blair and USA Today's Jack Kelley, but only a fraction note that the news media's image is a long-suffering one, not too far from lawyers at the bottom of the scale of most admired profession. 9/11 and its fallout helped this a bit, but it didn't take long for the image to sink again under the weight of Blair and others. It's clear now that little will change this. There's something about the duties of a profession where deep skepticism is considered a virtue and success is often determined by how aggressive and invasive it can be that will ensure the public's loathing.

Hardly a week passes without some report on the tattered state of American journalism's image. More times than not, these reports cite the past year's scandals involving Jayson Blair and USA Today's Jack Kelley, but only a fraction note that the news media's image is a long-suffering one, not too far from lawyers at the bottom of the scale of most admired profession. 9/11 and its fallout helped this a bit, but it didn't take long for the image to sink again under the weight of Blair and others. It's clear now that little will change this. There's something about the duties of a profession where deep skepticism is considered a virtue and success is often determined by how aggressive and invasive it can be that will ensure the public's loathing.

Still, image problems can be fixed. Some papers have tried to deal with it on a local level by appointing ombudsmen or public editors and adding layers of editing or fact-checking. Those involved in the biggest scandals, like The Times and USA Today, have made a show of their transparency, meticulously detailing the missteps of their reporters and releasing committee reports on the incidents. If anything, there might have been too much transparency, a sign that the management of these papers are aware of the threats to credibility that faking details in stories can have. In the long run, all this self-accounting has held little worth as a salve to a broad, industry-wide problem that seems to have longer legs than even the corporate governance scandals. One reason is that it all focuses too intently on the crisis management mentality. It's reactive, rather than proactive, and does nothing to call attention to the good journalistic work done daily. Here's a modest proposal: The news media should establish some sort of trade association that, in addition to the kind of professional development work that the Poynter Institute already does, works to protect its image. In good times, it could do ongoing community outreach, helping organizations interact with their audiences. In bad, it would act as a vocal, centralized spokesperson, not to spin but to keep scandals like the Blair fiasco in perspective. Of course, there are already plenty of media experts at places like Poynter that do some of this work, but they are not advocates. They're critics whose clear desire to err on the side of skepticism diminishes perspective. That said, Gary Wells, MD at Cleveland's Dix & Eaton, is certain of two things: One, a communications effort would help, and, two, the media would never go for it. "First of all," he says, "getting any number of media to do anything is like herding frogs. They jump in whatever direction they think best. Second of all, that would mean legitimizing public relations and some, but not all, would accept that premise because too many media think they do not have to explain themselves. They just think they have to explain everything else."

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