March 1, 2019

Journalism’s perception problem

This is troubling. A poll published by the Columbia Journalism Review revealed that 60 percent of people believe reporters get paid by their sources either “sometimes or very often.”

Think about that: 60 percent. That’s out of 4,214 adults.

No reputable news organization gets paid by sources. Yet more than half of those polled think they do.

Here’s the thing: don’t just blame the public for believing that. It’s not only those polled who have the problem. It’s journalists who also have the problem — a perception problem. And journalists can work to fix it.

How? First, don’t dismiss the public’s distrust or misunderstanding of the media. Then search for reasons why the public thinks sources pay them. Is there something in their coverage that suggests they are being paid (or bought) by those they cover? Is there something in their behavior publicly or on social media that would lead so many to believe they are being paid by sources? Plus, journalists must ask if they ever accept free “stuff,” as Slate writes about when travel, entertainment, fashion and other reporters sometimes take gifts — something that should not happen.

Next, perhaps it’s time for more media outlets to better market themselves. TV news stations are excellent in this regard, advertising themselves as “trusted,” “reliable” and “dependable.” Perhaps other news organizations, particularly newspapers, should do more of that.

News organizations could be more transparent about how they do their jobs. They should give their audiences a peek behind the curtain more often to show how stories are put together. The New York Times does this on a regular basis, in part with its podcast “The Daily,” often a behind-the-scenes look at and with the journalists at the Times. Increasingly, “how we did it” stories are appearing, like this one from The Washington Post explaining Roy Moore coverage, this example from the Tampa Bay Times about why the paper thought Legos were the best way to tell the story, or this great explainer from ProPublica on how it put together a package on maternal harm. The more the audience understands how stories are assembled, the more credible the stories might become, and the less room there is for audiences to believe sources are paying for coverage.

There is always going to be a distrust of the media, especially when some politicians and business and community leaders push back against negative coverage by calling it  “fake news” and journalists “enemy of the people.” But there are plenty of smart folks out there who still question the media’s fairness and objectivity and, therefore, have wild misconceptions about journalism. It’s partly up to journalists to recognize that and work to change those perceptions.

Cohen and the BuzzFeed News story

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, pauses to speak with the media as he departs after testifying before a closed-door hearing of the House Intelligence Committee. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In January, BuzzFeed News came out with a story that President Donald Trump directed his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about Trump’s business dealings in Russia. But the office of special counsel Robert Mueller put out a statement disputing parts of the report. BuzzFeed News stood by its story. Since then, no news organization has been able to either confirm or shoot down BuzzFeed News’ report.

Then came Wednesday when Cohen testified before Congress. Did he help or hurt BuzzFeed News’ credibility on that story? Uh, maybe both, writes the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan.

On one hand, in his written testimony, Cohen wrote: “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress.’’

So that disputes BuzzFeed News, right? Hold on. Cohen continued: “That’s not how he operates.”

What Cohen is claiming is that Trump made it clear he was to lie. Cohen testified: “In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me, ‘There’s no business in Russia,’ and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie.”

So, if you believe Cohen — and not everyone does — BuzzFeed News seems to be vindicated. Ultimately, we might have to wait for the Mueller Report to get a better sense of how accurate BuzzFeed News’ story was.

Costas says he was not fired

Bob Costas attends an event in 2018 in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

Bob Costas officially left NBC earlier this year, partly because his critical comments about the NFL did not sit well with his NBC bosses. But, in an interview with The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, Costas insists he was not fired by NBC.

“That is an absurd misimpression that somehow has grown out of this,” Costas told the magazine. He added, “I agreed that not having me host the Super Bowl was the right move. I had no problem with it. I was actually relieved not to do it. I had no stake in doing it, but it was I who first suggested that we might have reached a point of diminishing returns.”

Monday Night Football changes

NFL player Jason Witten in 2018, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Speaking of football, former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten is coming out of retirement to play again.

That’s good news for the Cowboys, as well as fans of Monday Night Football.

That’s because Witten spent last season as an analyst on MNF, and his announcing work was panned by pretty much everyone.

If MNF wants to be relevant again, it needs to hand former NFL star Peyton Manning a blank check to join the booth.


Printing cuts in Dallas

The Dallas Morning News is cutting back on some of its commercial printing services and, as a result, 92 jobs at the DMN’s Plano printing plant are being eliminated. Currently, 57 of those positions are filled. The News reports that the plant employed about 350 people before the cuts.

The plant will continue to print the Dallas Morning News as well as regional editions of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Denton Record-Chronicle. But about 25 smaller commercial and weekly newspapers will be dropped.

Check it out

Think you can shut off your devices for 24 hours? In a row, that is? Today begins the National Day of Unplugging, which actually goes from sundown today to sundown Saturday. Poynter’s Ren LaForme tells you why it’s a good idea in his Try This! — Tools for Journalism newsletter.

New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer and colleague Ronan Farrow broke the Christine Blasey Ford accusations against eventual Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Elle’s Molly Langmuir writes about what’s next for Mayer.

Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Elon Green reports on how Esquire lost the story of director Bryan Singer being accused of sexual misconduct.

I’ve been linking all week to a cool series by The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch. He has been asking sportswriters to write essays about the most memorable games they ever covered. The latest offering is from basketball writers.

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece on the 10th anniversary of the Rocky Mountain News closing. I talked to, among others, the Rocky’s former editor and publisher John Temple. Now the director of UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, Temple wrote his thoughts on the Rocky for The Atlantic.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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