Marty Baron: Fair and honest reporting 'will be validated over the long run'

#TrueNews: A series on Trust in Media

This is the first installment of our series of reports from our inaugural ethics summit in Washington, D.C.

As journalists, we tend to assume the public understands our jobs and how we do them — that we labor to hold officials and powerbrokers accountable, we pursue stories in the public interest, we operate independently of political parties or interest groups, we don’t pay for or fabricate information, we check facts and correct mistakes. The evidence is overwhelming, however, that our motivations and methods are deeply misunderstood. Half of Americans distrust the media, with even higher levels of contempt among Republicans, according the recently released Poynter Media Trust Survey.

Drawing back the curtain on our process of reporting, fact-checking, sourcing — to demystify how the sausage is made — may be a key step toward restoring trust in journalism’s vital role in democracy, Washington Post editor Marty Baron said last week at the inaugural Poynter Journalism Ethics Summit, hosted at NPR headquarters in Washington. “The Press and the President: Trust and Media in a New Era,” was the first in what I envision as annual thought leadership gatherings for newsroom leaders and journalists on what we are doing right and wrong in a highly polarized environment — and what we can do better, especially to regain audience trust.

“I think there's an enormous mystery … about who we are and how we go about things and why we did things,” Baron said. “In the future, we'll find more occasions to do that.”

Four days later, the Washington Post made good on Baron’s pledge, launching a new video series called “How to be a Reporter” hosted by Libby Casey, described as a response to the finding of Poynter’s survey that more than half of Americans don’t trust the media or our motives. The series is “aimed at deconstructing the journalism process while answering questions about how reporting works.” In the first episode, reporters Stephanie McCrummen and Beth Reinhard explain how they reported on multiple women’s allegations that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore pursued them sexually when they were teenagers, “through dozens of interviews and weeks of fact-checking.”

Other important steps newsrooms can take, Baron said, include annotating stories and linking to original documents, audio and videos; making sure we cover marginalized communities that may be outside of major media markets; drawing a newsroom from diverse backgrounds, and labeling news, opinion and analysis so readers understand the difference.

Baron was among more than 40 news executives, White House correspondents, political editors, columnists and media researchers from all sides of the political spectrum who spoke at last week’s summit on how to break through partisan echo chambers, how to cover a president who attacks the media without getting politicized, how to assert accuracy when the audience disputes the facts, and how to effectively restore audience trust. Over the next few months, we’ll recap the top takeaways from the event with short posts and videos.

For our first episode, we’ll start with Baron, whom I interviewed over lunch.

On whether distrust in the media is a crisis:

I think it's a serious concern, but I don't see it as a crisis. I think it's something that we have to work on but we've had these moments before I think the press has come under attack from partisan interests over the course of many decades, particularly during Watergate. The press, the activities of the Washington Post and other news organizations at the time were viewed through a partisan lens. It's only after that reporting was validated that approval ratings for the press actually soared.

My view is that we have to keep a long run in mind. The important part is that work is good, that it's solid, that it was pursued fairly, honestly and honorably, and that it will be valid — I trust that it will be validated over the long run.

On partisan attacks on the media:

I don't know what I can do about that, other than to continue doing our jobs, to continue to do our work and to hope that over the long run, that it all gets validated which I’m confident that over the long run, it will be validated. We're not in the business of pandering to anybody; we're not in the business of placating anybody. I don't think there's actually anything to be gained by doing that.

I think the environment is such that if you're not 100 percent with a side, then you're not with them at all, you're against them. I mean you can see how among, even within the parties, you take the Republican Party in particular, that if you're not 100 percent with Trump, then you're viewed as being anti-Trump or not a true conservative or not a true Republican or however those terms are being redefined these days.

On the dangers of disinformation and conspiracy theorists:

I think that it's a good idea for people to have a variety of sources of information … I think it's important that those sources of information be honest and honorable ones … that within those organizations, they include journalists who are real journalists, who were seriously determined to get at the truth to disclose the facts that they're not just ideologically driven sites or sites that are essentially in the business of trying to discredit other media or to undermine other institutions or to spread for whatever reason conspiracy theories and the like.

I value our free speech and free expression rights as much as anyone. So, I'm loath to do anything about that other than to make sure that we have a more educated population with regard to their consumption of news. That we have more news literacy programs, that we help develop more critical thinking, more discriminating thinking among news consumers. Well that's a long-term process, that's going to take a long time.

On building media literacy into your news product:

Many months ago (we) added more labeling to our stories online so that you have opinion, you have analysis, you have a thing called perspective (which are columnists), we have review. We have these different categories.

If you put your cursor over the label, they will tell you what our definition is of that term. I do think that we need to be clearer about what's what. I hope that it will make a difference. I am not sure if that will make a difference, but we need to do it regardless. We should be clear about what we're doing and where we're doing it.

On how transparency can build trust:

Try to lay out more information: Where did we get it, what are the original documents, point to that and maybe annotate our stories. Maybe provide original audio, provide original video that people can look at for themselves, and then also be more transparent about who we are.

I don't think we're doing it nearly often enough and I don't think the profession’s doing it nearly often enough. It may not be within the body of the story, it may be an accompanying piece but I think that readers are really interested. I do think that that can help our credibility issues. I don't think it's going to solve our credibility issues but I think it can help because we should just talk more about how we go about our work. I think there's an enormous mystery surrounding it.

On whether fact-checking works:

I don't think it's futile … just because some segment of the population doesn't believe it. Look, we're in the job of trying to get at the truth, of trying to gather the facts and put them in proper context. That's what we do with Fact Checker, and that's what we do with the rest of our report. Ultimately, it's up to members of the public to decide whether they're going to believe that or not believe that.

On whether there are some people who can’t be persuaded by transparency or factual reporting:

I would never write off anybody, but look, the reality is that there's still about — notwithstanding what Trump ultimately acknowledged — there's still about 25 percent  of the American public that still believes Obama was not born in the United States and is a Muslim. I'm not sure what you can do to convince them that he was born in the United States and is not a Muslim. Certain people are going to believe what they want to believe.

So much of what is happening today is people are looking for affirmation of their preconceived, their preexisting views or affirmation of the world as they already see it. Then, the facts have to fit into their view of the world. That's true on the left as well as on the right, and it really is. I don't know that there's much that I can do about that.

On the importance of diversity in newsrooms:

A lot of people have gross misconceptions about who we are as journalists and it's shocking. They think we're all from some sort of East Coast “elite,” that we all went to Ivy League schools and things like that. That we have certain attitudes, and it's not true.

We have a lot of people with a lot of different views in our newsrooms who come from a lot of different backgrounds. Working class backgrounds ... grew up on farms. We have one person in our newsroom who was home-schooled in a family of 12. We have people who've gone to evangelical colleges; we have a wide variety. We've hired a number of vets. We continue to endeavor to do that.


We want people making us aware of things that we may not have been aware of before because of our own individual experiences.

On Project Veritas’ failed operation to entrap the Post with false information:

I think that the events themselves served as a very clear warning to journalists that they need to be careful, that obviously we need to do our jobs, we need to check things out as thoroughly as we possibly can. That we should approach our jobs, as always, with a high level of skepticism and that you don't accept just what people say. You have to dig more deeply.

I tell people that they should really think that if they are talking to somebody they've never seen before, they should assume that it's going to be on video and be disseminated to the entire world. Then talk. Talk with that in mind.

On any regrets about 2016 election coverage:

I've said that if I have a regret it's … what we didn't do before Donald Trump actually declared his candidacy. I think that we at The Post as well as other ... news organizations should have done a better job of sort of getting out in the country and understanding the level of anxiety and anger that existed in many parts of this country.

And, we don't intend to make that mistake again. We are sending reporters out all the time, into the country, spending a lot of time with people and taking the measure of people in every corner of this country, people of every background.

On soaring subscriptions since Donald Trump was elected:

Wherever that support comes from, I'm happy to have that. I do hope … that those are people who will recognize that when we move on to another administration, perhaps at some point, whenever, of a different party, [that] they will recognize that we are supposed to do the very same thing, as we did with the prior administration. … People who argue that we're applying a different standard, I think just haven't really gone back and done an honest assessment of our work … It’s not like we had a love fest with the Obama administration; we did not.

On sustaining the news business:

I think people have come to understand that if they want quality journalism, they need to pay for it … That's true at the national level, and it's especially true at the local and regional level where I've spent most of my career.

They do offer something unique, really unique, which is no one else is going to cover their communities the way that they do, and I think that it has to be driven home to people in those communities that they're going to have to pay for it. It's really not that much money.

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    Indira Lakshmanan

    Indira Lakshmanan is the executive editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and a Boston Globe columnist. She also served as the first Newmark chair in journalism ethics at Poynter.


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