Can we restore public trust in journalism?

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Too many journalists tolerate peers who, through undisciplined abandonment of standards, undermine their craft’s credibility

By Peter Menzies

It’s long past time that journalists paid attention to the millions of Canadians who don’t trust the news the way we used to.

Sure, we could have lost faith because of the #fakenews narrative that has flowed north across the border. Or from learning that many of the characters influencing public reaction to events on social media are not real people but bots programmed to push issues this way or that.

And, for sure, some of it is because of the Der Spiegel scandal, as well as other issues that result in substandard ‘news’ items more closely related to stenography than journalism.

But I suspect it’s in large part due to the tolerance of too many journalists for those of their peers who are determined, through their undisciplined abandonment of once-cherished standards, to undermine their craft’s credibility.

I’m aware that the creation and maintenance of a high social media profile is one of the assumed defences against the layoffs that have pervaded the Canadian news industry in recent years: journalism as click bait, if you will. But the outcome of this “look at me” behaviour is frequently that some of the most basic rules – most prominently the strict insistence upon the appearance of objectivity – that anchor the craft are tossed aside as if they were little other than last year’s footwear.

The most valuable commodity journalists trade in is trust: contacts and subjects who have faith they will be portrayed not just truthfully but fairly; editors who believe that facts and allegations have been confirmed and cross-checked; and, most of all, the confidence of consumers that the news item in question has been inquired into without fear or favour.
As with any relationship, that trust isn’t granted until it’s earned by either the individuals involved or the corporate entity that employs them. It take years to amass and only seconds to destroy. When the latter happens, it takes even longer to rebuild it, which explains why purple-faced editors used to – and perhaps still do – go pretty crazy over what many might consider the mildest of errors, such as a misspelled name or misstated date. “If you get anything wrong,” they would spit, “how does the reader know you didn’t get everything wrong?”

As Anna Altman elegantly noted recently in the Columbia Journalism Review regarding the fraud perpetrated by Der Spiegel’s ‘star’ writer Claas Relotius, there’s a bond between reader and writer that in German is reduced to a single noun: leserbindung.

Relotius’s fracturing of that bond was so extensive that it’s possible that Der Spiegel will never recover. As Altman describes it, in one of Relotius’s most decorated stories, “he wrote of orphan siblings in Turkey, Ahmed and Alin, who had been displaced from Syria. Ahmed, Relotius wrote, had seen his father shot by a firing squad and buried his mother by hand. In reality, Ahmed’s father had disappeared but wasn’t shot; his mother is alive and works in a furniture store; and Alin, if she exists, is not his sister.”

Most analyses point to systemic faults, mostly human, that allowed Relotius to kill Der Spiegel’s leserbindung.

One would have hoped that tragic denouement, recent as it was, would have imposed a bit more discipline within the industry. But there’s no evidence of that to date – none at all.

Indeed, within days of the demise of Relotius, NBC News – merrily retweeted with sarcastic comment by at least one senior member of Canada’s parliamentary press gallery – was falsely reporting that Donald Trump had become the first U.S. president since 2002 not to visit his troops at Christmas time while he was in fact en route to Iraq. Tempting as Trump derangement syndrome might be for those within the broader public, there is no excuse for this, particularly when the error is unapologetically left to stand uncorrected.

Fairness dictates that it be noted the majority of journalists conduct themselves objectively online and when speaking in public. I would encourage them, though, to hold their more undisciplined peers to account. While their sins are generally not on the scale of Relotius’s, those putting their profile ahead of their principles are encouraging the decline of trust in their craft and, with that, hastening its demise.

I trust they will try.

Columnist Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher and vice-chair of the CRTC.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by all columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of NetNewsLedger.

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