SALT LAKE CITY — Journalists need to build trust with the public and continue fighting for freedom of expression in countries where those freedoms are constantly challenged.
In America, it's about doing the job journalists have been asked to do — report accurately and authoritatively the happenings and events that make up our democracy and do so in a way that will hold up to scrutiny and criticism, and also stand the test of time. How do you do that when the citizenry's trust in media and most of its institutions is waning?
Some of the answers were on display this weekend at the 73rd General Assembly of the Inter American Press Association, dedicated to "promoting and protecting freedom of expression and the public's right to be informed in the Americas.”
The annual conference, which features journalists from North and South America, was hosted in Salt Lake City at Little America hotel thanks in large part to the leadership of Matt Sanders, formerly of Deseret Digital Media, who is completing his term as president of the association and who brought the gathering to Salt Lake City.
Jeff Jarvis, who runs the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University in New York, set the stage for the weekend in a presentation noting that responding to a crisis of trust in media requires soul-searching.
The association then turned Saturday to Martin Baron, editor of The Washington Post, to offer his insights in a 90-minute conversation with myself, editor of the Deseret News, as I served as onstage interviewer discussing all-things journalism — the role of reporters, editors, the impact of technology and the need to have authoritative investigative reports.
A transcript of the interview will be published later this week. But here's a lightly edited excerpt on what he had to say about trust and fake news:
Wilks: So there are two words we want to talk about today and that's “fake news.” How would you define it? Where do you see fake news now ... given that people have different orientations to what fake news is? What is it for you and what role is it playing in how we do our jobs?
Baron: The president's idea of fake news is anything that does not conform to his account of events, he would call fake news. … I remember when he said, “If you see any negative press about me, that's fake news.” … I would say, what fake news is not, it's not a mistake. We all make mistakes, we're human. In this business we should acknowledge our mistakes and correct our mistakes. … What I think of fake news, is it's the deliberate spread of false and misleading information and conspiracy theories solely for the purpose of dissuading democracy or undermining people's understanding of the truth."
Wilks: How did we allow (fake news) to be redefined? Were journalists asleep at the switch? Does the president just have the loudest bully pulpit? Because it did change. … How did we get to this place where fake news has this definition?
Baron: Well, when someone like Donald Trump runs for president and says it time and time and time again, and then wins the nomination, then repeats it constantly from a position of the most powerful man in the world, it has an effect, it's undeniable that it has an effect.
And he has certain supporters who stayed with him and believe in him very strongly, for reasons that I understand, and they're willing to accept whatever he says. If he says it's fake news it must be fake news. And there was a low-level of trust, of course, in the media and there was before he became president. The trust in the media had been declining for many years. (So that created this environment) … About 70 percent of Republicans in this country now believe that the mainstream press makes up stories. It's extraordinary. And so you know we're having to deal with that. …
There's a decline in trust in pretty much all institutions in the United States. There's been a decline in trust in Congress where Congress is actually trusted less than the media in this country. There's been a huge decline in trust in the presidency over the last year, to the point where the trust in the presidency is just about to the level of trust in the media, and so in that strange way he's bringing us closer together.
And then you see a decline in trust in organized religion, declining trust in business, declining trust in the medical system. The only institutions that have maintained their levels of trust are number one, military which has been high, and remains very high, and number two law enforcement, which is beginning to decline somewhat.
Wilks: So trust becomes the key issue, and the risk ultimately is the declining trust in democracy. So what do you do at The Washington Post to gain trust or rebuild trust and get back into this space?40 comments on this story
Baron: Report truth, day in and day out, work very hard as reporters. Show more of our work so that people can see it, see what a report is based on, how many people we've talked to, as I said before, try to reveal more about who our reporters are, what their background is, what their experience is. But ultimately it just has to be good, strong reporting that ends up being validated in the long run. … So what I focus on is how solid is our reporting and will that reporting be validated over a long time. And I focus on the long run. And I believe our reporting will be validated.
Jarvis said journalists need to look at the differing communities and find a way to connect them:
"A key question in journalism is how do we build bridges. How do we make strangers less strange?" he said. That speaks to engaging the community through all channels of communication.
The conference continues through Monday.