Washington, D.C. — When Donald Trump took the oath of office on a dreary Friday last January, journalists, exhausted from a grueling campaign trail, held on to a few lingering assumptions: at least, that crowd sizes were quantifiable and facts had no alternatives. Over the course of just a few days, those remaining assumptions were derided, as the journalists' reporting was once again called “fake news.”
Less than one year later, the media — in addition to reporting the news of the day — is still engaging in constant self-examination, thinking hard and fast about its relationship with a starkly unique administration, and reconsidering its standing with the public.
At the Poynter Institute’s inaugural Journalism Ethics Summit, held at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., journalists, advocates and scholars emphasized the need for trust and transparency in reporting. The gathering was funded by Craig Newmark Philanthropies, which provides funding to Poynter.
“I think there’s mystery about how we go about our work,” Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, told Poynter’s Indira Lakshmanan. “Lets just be more transparent about how we pursued the story.”
In this spirit, the Post recently dodged a so-called "sting operation" from conservative activist organization Project Veritas, explicating its solid reporting processes to demonstrate how they foiled the scheme.
Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, said we are seeing a shift from the “‘trust me’ era of journalism … to the ‘show me’ era of journalism.”
Journalistic malpractice was also on the tongues of participants, however. Brian Ross, chief investigative reporter for ABC News, was suspended for four weeks following a false story alleging that Trump had directed former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to make contact with the Russian government during the campaign (when it was actually during the transition, as ABC later clarified).
“The damage that Brian Ross did by getting that story wrong I think is significant,” said National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, noting the problem of critics who use errors as examples to instill more distrust in media. “Getting it wrong, even for understandable reasons, is really, really damaging.”
“I think there’s something about television,” added CNN media reporter Brian Stelter in an earlier panel. “Ross’ authority came through on camera. All of that backfired on him.”
Ross issued a “clarification” on ABC, but because Ross’ story had a sizable effect on the stock market, Trump used the opportunity to urge investors to sue the television network.
“Even small mistakes are used to undercut the entire credibility of the press,” said Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, who noted that he, personally, had to issue a correction on a story this morning.
Baron stressed the importance of ensuring quality at a time that readers have so many news options.
“I think a substantial segment of the American public has come to understand if they want quality journalism they’re going to need to pay for it," he said.
Evaluating trust in media
Monday’s summit began on a pedagogical note, with University of Exeter’s Jason Reifler presenting the new Poynter Media Trust Survey on behalf of his co-authors Brendan Nyhan from Dartmouth College and Andrew Guess from Princeton University.
The study, entitled “You’re Fake News!,” found that Republicans view the press more negatively than do Democrats, but that trend is especially true among “respondents with high levels of political knowledge.”
The survey showed an uptick in overall media trust, however that predominantly derived from a strong increase in Democratic trust since Trump’s election.
Additionally, 44 percent of respondents believed “the news media fabricates stories about President Trump.”
The findings, along with the broader motif of ideological polarization, permeated the day of discussion among panelists, moderators and the audience of highly curated practitioners and researchers.
Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer for FiveThirtyEight, noted that polarization is greater than it used to be.
“In 1996, Bob Dole is running against Bill Clinton. The gap between Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz is much wider,” said Bacon. “The competing claims are much different.”
Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University, stressed the problem of so-called ‘both-sides journalism.’
“Asymmetrical polarization means the right has been drifting right faster than the left has been drifting left,” Rosen said.
“There’s more safety in the center, but there may be less truth.”
The president and the press
As expected, much of the summit’s discussion concerned President Trump.
Early in the day, the Washington Post’s James Hohmann interviewed White House reporters Jim Acosta from CNN, Eli Stokols from the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News’ Margaret Talev, who also serves as the president of the White House Correspondents Association.
“Among some American news consumers, it seems we [in the briefing room] have become a proxy for voter’s frustrations,” said Talev, spearheading the conversation about covering Trump without “politicizing the press.”
Jim Acosta, who has been personally targeted by Trump as “fake news,” said that it is important the press stand up for their rights in the briefing room and outside.
“That day with Stephen Miller … All I did was quote the Statue of Liberty to him and he imploded,” Acosta said about his contentious exchange about immigration with Trump’s senior policy advisor in August. “If that is the bar where ‘journalists are taking the bait,’ we have already lost.”
“We’re not part of the 'Resistance,' that’s not our job,” Acosta added. “But if journalism is under attack, we should resist.”
Bloomberg View columnist Al Hunt, in a later panel, insisted “the press should realize that the story isn’t about us.”
“When Jared Kushner goes to CNN and says ‘cut 25 percent of staff,’ that’s a big deal. When CNN announces that they’re not going to the White House Christmas Party, that’s chicken shit,” Hunt said.
While many others asserted a similar sentiment, urging that the press avoid self-congratulation, Stokols clarified that journalists should explain how they work and provide context.
“It’s not just self-referential … [we need to] explain to people why we do this,” he said.
Hearing all voices
While the national, and news industry-wide, conversation about sexual harassment and assault was not discussed much throughout the day, Baron addressed it through the lens of the Post’s Roy Moore coverage.
“More women now feel free to speak up, I think they feel an obligation to speak up,” said Baron. “I do worry about the level of harassment that the women who have spoken up about Roy Moore have had to suffer by telling the truth. That’s what dissuades people, ‘Why would I subject myself to that.’ But, I think that [concern] reinforces the validity of their stories.”
Stephen F. Hayes, editor in chief of The Weekly Standard, did the same to demonstrate the efficacy of the Post’s self-explanatory reporting.
"I'm sorry, there is no way you cannot believe the women when you know how the story was reported,” he said.
Questions of diversity and representation were undertones of discussion at times.
“The media tends to get the same things wrong over and over again. I don’t think people are making enough effort to talk to Americans,” said The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk II, noting importance of race, class and identity. “Are the people you interview representative of America?”
Lakshmanan asked Baron about representation in newsrooms, as well.
“I think a lot of people have gross misconceptions about who journalists are,” Baron said. “We have a lot of different people from diverse backgrounds in our newsroom.”
Lakshmanan pressed Baron on whether he considers diversity of thought in his newsroom, particularly political thought.
“I don’t ask people what their political thoughts are,” he rebuffed.
Poynter Institute vice president Kelly McBride concluded the summit by stressing transparency in reporting while noting the opportunity for explication and education.
McBride recapped some of the lessons she took from the day-long event, including to “protect and defend democratic values and institutions,” “educate the public on those values,” and describe the process for how journalists strive for accuracy.
A recurring concession throughout the day was that media literacy and education were at the heart of any effort to improve the relationship between politics, the media and the public.
When the public better understands how the press works, we can continue to build trust.