“How can journalists cover powerful people who lie?” That was the question posed last week by three media heavyweights—Alan Rusbridger, former editor of the Guardian; Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University; and Heidi Taksdal Skjeseth, US correspondent for Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen—who have launched a crowdsourcing project searching for solutions.
Referring to Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s assertion that the administration was presenting “alternative facts,” they ask: “How can journalists find truth and report it when those they cover lie, sometimes blatantly and frequently? How can they avoid the lies distracting from coverage of other, sometimes more fundamental, issues? And how do we tell lies from things that are merely partisan, provocative, and/or extremely selective?”
But these are new challenges only in degree. Though the new American president has an unusual disdain for the truth—making unsubstantiated or incorrect claims about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, illegal voting and issues surrounding the refugee and immigration ban—political leaders have always covered up, denied evidence and twisted numbers to their advantage. The role of journalists in a democracy is to uncover those falsehoods, to enable the public to hold their elected officials to account.
The new challenge in the age of Trump is that a significant proportion of the public appears to favour the word of the powerful liars over that of the news media. The media derives its power to hold authorities to account from its readers—the electorate. It becomes impotent if the public cannot access the information it provides, which is why so many authoritarian regimes censor the media. But the same is true if the public does not believe the information it provides.
Trump knows this, and has worked hard to leverage the widening trust gap between the public and the media. When he tries to discredit the media—calling it “dishonest” or “deceitful”; referring to reporters as “lightweights” and “liars”; calling major outlets “failing” or “irrelevant”—he is trying to limit its ability to hold him to account.
But he has only been able to do this because the trust gap already existed. Public confidence in the media has been sliding for years—in the US, it has fallen from its high point of about 70 per cent in the 1970s to just 32 per cent last year, according to Gallup. An environment in which the public was already sceptical made it easy for Trump to undermine what authority the media had left, escalating his claims until he could dismiss established outlets as “fake news.” This has only been possible because the media was already failing to do its job as well as it should.
How can the media try to close the trust gap? First and most obviously, it should continue to work hard to uncover falsehoods. Some of these, like the number of people attending the inauguration, are easy to refute. Others—perhaps the most important ones—will be harder to identify or reveal. Reporters need to arrive at interviews and press briefings with government officials armed with the knowledge and evidence to enable them to challenge claims in-depth (even if their interviewees refuse to engage). More importantly, their employers—newspapers, broadcasters and online outlets—need to invest properly in their reporters’ work, enabling investigations to trace facts and figures, networks and influences.
Second, the media needs to renew its commitment to accuracy. Mistakes happen, but under increasing financial and time pressures there have been too many instances of stories being reported incorrectly or facts being twisted for a juicier headline. The media’s reputation for reliability has suffered. Investment in public interest journalism has been eroded by competition from free online news sources. But the established media will continue to lose ground if it cannot distinguish itself from those competitors—and quality is a good place to start. There is a need and a demand for reliable journalism.
Third, we as journalists must be aware of our own biases. This is a much thornier issue than accuracy. There is a difference between fact and falsehood, but facts are not always neutral. Journalism by necessity involves decisions about what information to include and what to exclude—in this, we need to strive for neutrality. For the same reason, we may want to make a clearer distinction between news and opinion articles, for example, by separating them editorially and using different writers. But whatever efforts we make, all journalism represents a particular perspective – no one can be completely objective. The best way to tackle this is to cherish, maintain and improve media diversity.
Finally, the media will not be trusted if it is seen as part of the same establishment it claims to critique. Trump’s support base, with their anti-establishment sentiment, is a case in point. Even if rare, the perceived influence of business interests on journalism (such as claims that the Telegraph’s coverage of HSBC was affected by advertising concerns) or the close links between journalists and politicians exposed during the phone hacking scandal have the potential to be hugely damaging. There are hard questions to be asked here about ownership and funding. But there are steps that individual journalists can take, too—for instance, balancing the need to develop sources within the corridors of power against the need to keep a healthy distance.
Closing the trust gap will take more than four years to achieve, but it must be done if the media is to serve its purpose. These are a few of my thoughts—add yours to the crowdsourcing project here.