WASHINGTON — At Poynter’s Journalism Ethics Summit on Monday, the phrase “We’re not at war, we’re at work” was uttered more than a few times before its author, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, took the stage.
“He is perhaps the face of American journalism today,” said Poynter vice president Kelly McBride in her introductory remarks.
And in his typically reserved fashion, Baron’s face was as matter-of-fact as ever while Poynter ethics chair Indira Lakshmanan pressed him on the major theme of the summit: trust in media.
To his credit, Baron speaks like a journalist at work, not a combatant at war. His propensity is to talk about process, about craft, about readers before talking about Donald Trump or partisan politics.
But Lakshmanan began the conversation inquiring about a polarizing distinction between members of the two major parties.
“I don't know that it's a crisis, it's a concern. I think it's a serious concern,” Baron said of the “trust gap” between Democrats and Republicans’ views of the press. The disparity was highlighted in Poynter’s Media Trust Survey, released Monday morning.
The survey showed that politically informed Republicans are less likely to trust the press than their less-informed party members. The opposite is true for Democrats, where higher levels of political knowledge are directly correlated with trust in media.
“I think it's something we have to work on, but we've had these moments before,” Baron said. “I think the press has come under attack from partisan interests over the course of many decades, particularly during Watergate. The activities of the Washington Post and other newspapers at the time were viewed through a partisan lens. And it's only after that reporting was validated that approval ratings for the press actually soared.”
“My view is that we have to keep the long run in mind,” he added.
This long view was a recurring theme in conversation, as Baron frequently qualified his statements with the assurance that, given time, the Post’s reporting will be verified, trusted and perhaps celebrated for its importance at this critical moment.
In the face of those who mistrust his newspaper, for the meantime, Baron had no set solution.
"We're not in the business of pandering to anybody. We're not in the business of placating anybody,” he said. “I think people have immediate visceral reactions and tribal reaction, and it’s more pronounced today than ever. I believe over time things come to be accepted as facts and truth.”
While ultimately the public decides whether or not it will believe the Post’s reporting, Baron noted that his newsroom should try to be as transparent as possible.
“That's the other part,” Baron said. “Try to lay out more information: Where did we get it? What are the original documents? Point to that. Maybe annotate our stories. Maybe provide original audio. Provide original video that people can look at for themselves.”
In the past year, the Post has certainly opted for “show me journalism,” as Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute recommended in an earlier panel discussion.
David Fahrenthold, the Post’s break-out star of the presidential election cycle, used transparency as a tool to bolster and promote his work. His Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting about the Trump Foundation’s philanthropy was told through Twitter threads, audience interaction, and images of his iconic notes etched onto legal pads.
“Give your readers a thread to follow,” Fahrenthold said during a panel on building audience trust. “For me that meant showing a lot of your work.”
Fahrenthold used original tape, as well, in breaking one of the big stories of the campaign: the "Access Hollywood" tape in which Trump was recorded saying that when you’re a star, you can “grab ‘em by the pussy,” suggesting that celebrities are allowed to sexually assault women simply because they are famous.
Additionally, The Post recently thwarted a so-called "sting operation" from conservative activist organization Project Veritas, utilizing a solid reporting process to foil the plot.
In explicating that process to readers, the Post demonstrated their high standards for publishing, their foolproof methods and the professionalism of their reporters. In doing so, they authored a lesson in journalism for the entire country to see.
“[Project Veritas is] not journalism, which is primarily in the business of verification. Some of those are almost in the opposite business, which is — I don't know what the term would be. But, de-verification or something like that. Or dis-verification. I don't know. Maybe we need a new word for that,” Baron said, with a hint of humor. “Certainly spreading falsehoods and deliberately doing so… Not just making a mistake as we all do, but actually deliberately spreading falsehoods and preying on conspiracy theories."
Additionally, he noted that the Post has recently introduced a labeling initiative to explain how they classify stories. Hover over a story label, like “Perspective” and the definition will pop up. It’s a helpful feature … if you know to look for it.
Baron also emphasized that the Post should be more transparent about who exactly is working in the newsroom.
“I think a lot of people have gross misconceptions about who we are as journalists, and it's shocking,” Baron said. “They think we're all from some sort of East Coast elite, that we all went to Ivy League schools and things like that. And that we have certain attitudes. I mean, we have a lot of people with a lot of different views in our newsroom who come from a lot of different backgrounds.”
“We want to have diversity in every sense. We want to hear a lot of different perspectives. We want people making us aware of things that we may not have been aware of before because of our own individual experiences,” Baron said.
While he would not concede that any reader was truly "unreachable," he said that for some critics it would be very difficult.
“I would never write off anybody,” Baron said. “But, there’s still about 25 percent of the American public that believes Obama was not born in the U.S. and is a Muslim. Certain people are going to believe what they want to believe.”
Currently embroiled in an “old-fashioned newspaper war” with the New York Times, as Poynter’s McBride framed it, it is probable that Baron and his paper will continue to fight for every last reader. Even those that Baron might privately feel are unreachable.
If not now, perhaps in the long run.