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Transparency and Trust in News Media

When I teach critical thinking, I often suggest that students pay a good deal of attention to the news. When news stories develop, what details do journalists choose to focus on? What details are they ignoring? Why choose to focus on certain details and not others? When new details are added or the story is updated, how does this change the narrative? As someone who regularly monitors the news for ethical analysis, this is a phenomenon I see all the time. A news item gets updated, and suddenly the focus of the piece dramatically changes. This is something that one can’t do in print media, but online media can revise and change the narrative of news after it is published.

Given the rapidly declining public trust in media, is it time for journalists and news groups to be more transparent and accountable about the narratives they choose to focus on (some may even say create) when they present a new story?

One morning last week I began to read an opinion article which is part of a series of articles written by former national NDP leader (and Prime Ministerial candidate) Tom Mulcair for CTV News. The article is about the on-going national Conservative leadership convention taking place, and mostly focuses on one candidate, Pierre Poilievre, and his attempts to appeal to voters in contrast with some of his rivals. I didn’t finish the article that morning, but when I returned to it later that afternoon, I noticed it had a new title.

What was entitled “Tom Mulcair: The Conservative leadership debates will be crucial” that morning was now titled “Tom Mulcair: The Trump side to Poilievre.” This change was surprising, but if one looks carefully, they will note that the article was “updated” an hour after being first published.

Luckily, I had the original article in my browser, and I was able to make comparisons between the updated version and the original. Does the update contain some new information that would prompt the change in title? No. The two articles are nearly identical, except for a minor typo correction. This means that with no meaningful difference, the article’s title was changed from a more neutral one to a far more politically charged title. It is no secret that Donald Trump is not popular in Canada, and so connecting one politician’s rhetoric to Trump’s is going to send a far different message and tone than “leadership debates will be crucial.” The important question, then, is why this change was made?

Is this a case of a news organization attempting to create and sell a political narrative for political purposes? To be fair, the original article always contained a final section entitled “The Trump Side to Poilievre,” but most of the article doesn’t focus on this topic. The more prominent section in the article focuses on issues of housing affordability, so why wasn’t the article changed to “Tom Mulcair: Conservatives address affordability as a theme?”

Is this a case of merely using clickbait-y headlines in the hopes of driving more attention? The point is that we don’t know, and most people would never even be aware of this change, let alone why it was made.

A recent survey of Canadians found that 49% of Canadians believe that journalists are purposely trying to mislead people by saying false or exaggerated claims, 52% believe that news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology than informing the public, and 52% believe that the media is not doing well at being objective and non-partisan. Similar sentiments can be found about American media as well. Amusingly, the very article that reports on this Canadian poll seeks to answer who is to blame for this. Apparently, it’s because of the end of the fairness doctrine in the U.S. (something that would have no effect on Canada), the growth of punditry (who gives them airtime?), polarization, and Donald Trump. Missing, of course, is the media pointing the blame at themselves; the sloppy collection of facts, the lazy analyses, the narrow focus on sensational topics. Surely, the loss of confidence in the media has nothing to do with their own lack of accountability and transparency.

News organizations always present a perspective when they report. We do not care about literally everything that happens, so the choice to cover a story and what parts of the story to cover are always going to be a reflection of values.

This is true in news, just as it is true in science. As philosopher of science Philip Kitcher notes, “The aim of science is not to discover any old truth but to discover significant truths.” Indeed, many philosophers of science argue that the notion of objectivity in science as a case of “value freedom” is nonsense. They argue that science will always be infused with values in some form or another in order to derive what it takes to be significant truths, so the intention should be to be as transparent about these matters as possible.

Recently, in response to concerns about bias in AI, there have been calls within the field of machine learning to use data sheets for data sets that would document the motivation, collection process, and recommended uses of a data set. Again, the aim is not necessarily to eliminate all bias and values, but to be more transparent about them to increase accountability. Should the news media consider something similar? Imagine if CTV communicated, not only that there had been an update to their story, but what was included in that update and why, not unlike Wikipedia. This would increase the transparency of the media and make them more accountable for how they choose to package and communicate news.

A 2019 report by the Knight Foundation reports that transparency is a key factor in trust in media. They note that this should not only include things like notifications of conflicts of interest, but also “additional reporting material made available to readers,” that could take the form of editorial disclosure, or a story-behind-the-story, that would explain why an editor thought a story was newsworthy. Organizational scholars Andrew Schnackenberg and Edward Tomlinson suggest that greater transparency can help with public trust in news by improving their perception of competence, integrity, and benevolence.

This also suggests why the news media’s attempt to improve their image have had limited success. Much of the debate about news media, particularly when framed by the news media themselves, focuses on the obligation to “fact check.” The CBC, for example, brags that its efforts to “rebuild trust in journalism” have focused on confirming the authenticity of videos against deep fakes, a corrections and clarifications page (which contains very vague accounts of such corrections), or their efforts to fight disinformation. They say that pundits can opine on the news but not the reporters.

But what they conveniently leave out is that the degradation in trust in news is not just about getting the facts right, it’s about how facts are being organized, packaged, and delivered.

Why include these pundits? Why cover this story? Why cover it in this way? If the media truly wants to improve the public trust, they will need to begin honestly taking responsibility for their own failure to be transparent about editorial decisions, they need to take steps to be held accountable, and they need to focus on how they can be more transparent in their coverage.

Chris Cuomo, Brotherhood, and Morality

side-by-side photographs of Andrew and Chris Cuomo

On Thursday, CNN suspended its prime-time news anchor Chris Cuomo “indefinitely, pending further evaluation.” By Saturday, he had been terminated. The move comes shortly after documents revealed a “cozy and improper” relationship between Chris Cuomo and the political aides of his brother, Andrew Cuomo, former governor of New York.

Andrew Cuomo recently resigned as governor amid numerous allegations of sexual misconduct. Shortly before that scandal became public, Chris Cuomo held regular friendly, even comic, interviews with his brother. He also reportedly held “strategic discussions” with his brother about how best to respond to the allegations. A few days ago, the New York attorney general’s office released more documents showing Cuomo used media sources to uncover information about those who were accusing his brother of sexual misconduct. This triggered CNN’s move to suspend the anchor. CNN claimed these documents showed “a greater level of involvement in his brother’s efforts than we previously knew.”

Even before these latest revelations, many of Cuomo’s colleagues regarded his behavior as violating journalistic ethical standards, which aim to maintain a healthy barrier between those who report and those who are being reported upon. “This is a no-brainer,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of the broadcast journalism department at the University of Maryland and former staff member at CNN. “Journalism Ethics 101: journalists should never cover family members. It’s a glaring conflict of interest.” Cuomo himself now calls the discussions with his brother and his aides “inappropriate” and a “mistake.”

There is little dispute that Chris Cuomo’s behavior violated journalistic and impersonal ethical standards in seeking to help his brother. But, and here is the philosophical puzzle, was he, at the same time, also being a good brother? Cuomo explained that he was “family first; job second” and singularly committed to “be there for my family, which I must.” If Cuomo was simply being a good brother, does this mean that being a good brother can conflict with being moral? In such a case, which should we choose? Looking for answers to these questions forces us to take sides in a philosophical debate about the bounds of morality.

As the joke has it, a friend will help you move, but a good friend will help you move a body. But at the heart of the joke is a serious point. Sometimes, as Cuomo has discovered, the demands of morality seem to conflict with the demands that our personal relationships put on us.

Some think that this apparent potential for conflict between the demands of morality and those of our personal relationships is just an illusion. Regarding friendship, Aristotle thought that good friends take an interest in their friends’ moral development. We want our friends to be better people — the best versions of themselves. A good friend wouldn’t help you to indulge in immoral behavior or to avoid facing the consequences. A good friend would encourage you to face up to what you ought to do. We might think the same about Cuomo. Perhaps a good brother would not help his sibling to navigate a series of sexual misconduct allegations. Perhaps, then, Cuomo was being both unethical and a bad brother. On this view, there is no real conflict of values. The standards of both morality and brotherhood condemn Chris Cuomo’s behavior.

But this Aristotelian approach is arguably an overly moralized conception of friendship, or, in our case, brotherhood. Contrary to the Aristotelian view, it certainly seems possible for good friends to not particularly care about each other’s moral development. Imagine two kids who enjoy getting into mischief together. The Aristotelian view implies that they simply aren’t good friends, but that doesn’t seem correct. So perhaps the Aristotelian view is false and there really is a tension between the demands of morality and those of our personal relationships.

So, we’re back to the idea that there is a genuine conflict between being a good brother and a morally good person. Let’s examine that apparent conflict more closely.

We generally think morality is impartial. When something is the moral thing to do, it’s the moral thing to do for everybody. At least, this is what the two most famous moral theories — Kantianism and Utilitarianism — claim. According to Kant, we’re acting morally so long as we’re treating peoples’ humanity not merely as a means, but (also) as an end. According to Utilitarianism, we’re acting morally so long as our actions produce the best outcome of the available options. These are both wholly impartial theories of morality. Everyone counts the same as everyone else. It doesn’t matter who the person in front of you is, or what your relationship with them is; morally, you just treat them the same as anyone else!

On the other hand, the demands of friendship and family are clearly not impartial. If you are a good friend, the fact that your friend is your friend means you will treat her better than you would a stranger. We often think we shouldn’t treat our friends or family just like we treat everyone else. So, the conflict between morality and friendship/family can be thought of as a conflict between acting impartially and morally, on the one hand, and acting partially, in favor of our friends and family, on the other.

Here is another reason to think there is, contrary to appearances, no real conflict between morality and brotherhood. We might be going wrong in thinking of morality as totally impersonal. Maybe the partial demands of friendship and family are genuine moral demands too. This idea is called “moral pluralism.”

Moral pluralists agree that the impersonal values that morality generally focuses upon — such as promoting general well-being — are important moral values. But they don’t think they are the only important moral values. According to the moral pluralist, Cuomo didn’t face a conflict between the demands of brotherhood and those of morality. Instead, the value pluralist would say Cuomo faced a conflict within morality, between two important moral values — of impersonal morality and of brotherhood. This provides a very different picture of Cuomo’s dilemma.

On this moral pluralist view, Chris Cuomo had good moral reasons to try to help his brother. He also had good moral reasons to maintain his distance and journalistic independence. This leaves us with a difficult question; which should he have done? Here, the moral pluralist faces the task of weighing these reasons against each other to form an overall, all-things-considered judgment.

The kind of dilemma Cuomo faced, between taking particular care of those you are closest to or living up to impersonal ethical standards, is not rare. The same (apparent) conflict can be found in choosing whether to donate to an effective charity or buy a Christmas present for someone you love, or choosing whether to let your friend copy your answers in a school test. These apparent dilemmas force us to confront some particularly tricky philosophical puzzles — puzzles about the nature of friendship, of familial bonds, and which values we include in our conception of morality.

On Journalistic Malpractice

photograph of TV camera in news studio

In 2005, then-CNN anchor Lou Dobbs reported that the U.S. had suffered over 7,000 cases of leprosy in the previous three years and attributed this to an “invasion of illegal immigrants.” Actually, the U.S. had seen roughly that many leprosy cases over the previous three decades, but Dobbs stubbornly refused to issue a retraction, instead insisting that “If we reported it, it’s a fact.”

In 2020, then-Fox-News anchor Lou Dobbs reported that the results of the election were “eerily reminiscent of what happened with Smartmatic software electronically changing votes in the 2013 presidential election in Venezuela.” Dobbs repeatedly raised questions and amplified conspiracy theories about Donald Trump’s loss, granting guests like Rudy Giuliani considerable airtime to spread misinformation about electoral security.

It’s generally uncontroversial to think that “fake news” is epistemically problematic (insofar as it spreads misinformation) and that it can have serious political consequences (when it deceives citizens and provokes them to act irrationally). Preventing these issues is complicated: any direct governmental regulation of journalists or news agencies, for example, threatens to run afoul of the First Amendment (a fact which has prompted some pundits to suggest rethinking what “free speech” should look like in an “age of disinformation”). To some, technology offers a potential solution as cataloging systems powered by artificial intelligence aim to automate fact-checking practices; to others, such hopes are ill-founded dreams that substitute imaginary technology for individuals’ personal responsibility to develop skills in media literacy.

But would any of these approaches have been able to prevent Lou Dobbs from spreading misinformation in either of the cases mentioned above? Even if a computer program would have tagged the 2005 leprosy story as “inaccurate,” users skeptical of that program itself could easily ignore its recommendations and continue to share the story. Even if some subset of users choose to think critically about Lou Dobbs’ 2020 election claims, those who don’t will continue to spread his conjectures. Forcibly removing Dobbs from the air might seem temporarily effective at stemming the flow of misinformation, but such a move — in addition to being plainly unconstitutional — would likely cause a counter-productive scandal that would only end up granting him even more attention.

Instead, rather than looking externally for ways to stem the tide of fake news and its problems, we might consider solutions internal to the journalistic profession: that is, if we consider journalism as a practice akin to medicine or law, with professional norms dictating how its practitioners ought to behave (even apart from any regulation from the government or society-at-large), then we can criticize “bad journalists” simply for being bad journalists. Questions of epistemic or political consequences of bad journalism are important, but subsequent to the first question focused on professional etiquette and practice.

This is hardly a controversial or innovative claim: although there is no single professional oath that journalists must swear (along the lines of those taken by physicians or lawyers), it is common for journalism schools and employers to promote codes of “journalistic ethics” describing standards for the profession. For example, the Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists is centered on the principles of accuracy, fairness, harm-minimization, independence, and accountability; the Journalism Code of Practice published by the Fourth Estate (a non-profit journalism watchdog group) is founded on the following three pillars:

  1. reporting the truth,
  2. ensuring transparency, and
  3. serving the community.

So, consider Dobbs’ actions in light of those three points: insofar as his 2005 leprosy story was false, it violates pillar one; because his 2020 election story (repeatedly) sowed dissension among the American public, it fails to abide by pillar three (notably, because it was filled with misinformation, as poignantly demonstrated by the defamation lawsuit Dobbs is currently facing). Even before we consider the socio-epistemic or political consequences of Dobbs’ reporting, these considerations allow us to criticize him simply as a reporter who failed to live up to the standards of his profession.

Philosophically, such an approach highlights the difference between accounts aimed at cultivating a virtuous disposition and those that take more calculative approaches to moral theorizing (like consequentialism or deontology). Whereas the latter are concerned with a person’s actions (insofar as those actions produce consequences or align with the moral law), the former simply focuses on a person’s overall character. Rather than quibbling over whether or not a particular choice is good or bad (and then, perhaps, wondering how to police its expression or mitigate its effects), a virtue theorist will look to how a choice reflects on the holistic picture of an agent’s personality and identity to make ethical judgments about them as a person. Like the famous virtue theorist Aristotle said, “one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.”

On this view, being “blessed and happy” as a journalist might seem difficult — that is to say, being a good journalist is not an easy thing to be. But Aristotle would likely point out that, whether we like the sound of it or not, this actually seems sensible: it is easy to try and accomplish many things, but actually living a life a virtue — actually being a good person — is a relatively rare feat (hence his voluminous writings on trying to make sense of what virtue is and how to cultivate it in our lives). Professionally speaking, this view underlines the gravity of the journalistic profession: just as being a doctor or a lawyer amounts to shouldering a significant responsibility (for preserving lives and justice, respectively), to become a reporter is to take on the burden of preserving the truth as it spreads throughout our communities. Failing in this responsibility is more significant than failing to perform some other jobs: it amounts to a form of malpractice with serious ethical ramifications, not only for those who depend on the practitioner, but for the practitioner themselves as well.

On Objectivity in Journalism

blurred image of crowd and streetlights

Over the past few years, a number of left-leaning journalists have publicly questioned the notion of objectivity as an ideal for journalists and journalistic practice. The discussions that ensued have generated a lot of heat, but for the most part not too much light. That’s why I was delighted by the latest episode of Noah Feldman’s podcast, Deep Background, which featured a lengthy interview with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is perhaps best known as the creator of The New York Times’s The 1619 Project. In that interview, Hannah-Jones and Feldman develop a nuanced account of the place of objectivity in journalism. I will discuss this account in due course. Before I do, I would like to unpack the multiple meanings of “objectivity” as it is used to describe journalists and their art.

The word “objectivity” is normally applied to two things: persons and facts or truths. An objective person is one who has three attributes: neutrality, even-handedness, and disinterestedness. A neutral person has no prior or preconceived views about a particular subject; an even-handed person is disposed to give due weight to both sides in a factual dispute; and a disinterested person has no strong interests in one side or the other being the correct one. Thus, objectivity as an attribute of persons involves (the lack of) both beliefs and desires. It is in the name of promoting the appearance of this kind of objectivity that some journalists think it is improper for them to engage in political activity, or even to vote.

When applied to facts or truths, as in the oft-repeated phrase “objective truth,” the word is generally taken to mean something about either empirical verifiability or “mind-independence.” Take empirical verifiability first. In this sense, “objective” truths are truths that can be directly verified by the senses, and so are part of a public world which we share with other sentient creatures. In this sense, “objective” truths contrast with both truths about our mental states, such as that I like the taste of chocolate ice cream, and “metaphysical” truths, such as that God is all-powerful. Mind-independence is a slippery concept, but the basic idea is that mind-independent truths are truths which don’t depend on anyone’s beliefs about what is true. That it is raining in Durham, North Carolina would be true even if everyone believed it false. In this sense, “objective” truths contrast with conventional truths, such as truths about grammar rules, since such rules depend for their very existence on the attitudes, and in particular the beliefs, of writers and speakers. In this sense, however, “objective” truths include both metaphysical truths and truths about mental states. To see the latter point, consider that the fact that I like chocolate ice cream would be true even if no one, including I myself, believed it to be true. Thus, truths about personal taste can count as subjective in one sense, but objective in another.

With some exceptions I will discuss shortly, criticisms of objectivity rarely cast doubt on the existence of objective truths. Instead, they target the ideal of the journalist as a neutral, even-handed, and disinterested observer. The criticisms are two-fold: first, that adopting the objective stance is impossible, since all journalists use their prior beliefs and interests to inform their decisions about what facts to include or highlight in a story, and if they have the discretion, even what stories to write. Second, since a perfectly objective stance is impossible, trying to adopt the stance constitutes a form of deception that causes people to invest journalists with a kind of epistemic authority they don’t and couldn’t possess. Better to be honest about the subjective (basically, the psychological) factors that play a role in journalistic practice than to deceive one’s readers.

In the interview with Feldman, Hannah-Jones echoed these criticisms of objectivity. She then distinguished between two activities every journalist engages in: fact-finding and interpretation. In the fact-finding phase, she said, journalists can and must practice “objectivity of method.” What she apparently means to pick out with this phrase are methods by which journalists can hope to access objective truth. Such methods might include interviewing multiple witnesses to an event or searching for documentary evidence or some other reliable corroboration of testimony; they might also include the institutional arrangements that newsrooms adopt — for example, using independent fact checkers. However, she and Feldman seemed to agree that interpretation — variously glossed as working out what facts “mean” or which are “important” — is a subjective process, inevitably informed by the journalist’s prior beliefs and desires.

Here are two observations about Hannah-Jones’s account. First, the methods used to access objective truth in the fact-finding stage tend to force journalists to at least act as if they are objective persons. For example, interviewing multiple witnesses and weighing the plausibility of all the testimony is the kind of thing an even-handed observer would do. Looking for corroborating evidence even when one wants a witness’s testimony to be true emulates disinterestedness. This doesn’t mean that one has to be objective in order to practice journalism well, but it does suggest a role for objectivity as a regulative ideal: when we want to know how to proceed in fact-finding, we ask how an objective person would proceed. And to the extent that we can emulate the objective person, to that extent is the epistemic authority of the journalist earned.

Second, it seems to me that “interpretation” involves trying to access objective truth, or doing something much like it. Feldman and Hannah-Jones used two examples to illustrate the kinds of truths that the process of interpretation is aimed at accessing: truths about people’s motives, or why they acted (as opposed to truths about their actions themselves, which are within the domain of fact-finding), and causal truths, like that such-and-such an event or process was the key factor in bringing about some state of affairs. But such truths are objective in at least one sense. Moreover, even truths about motives, while subjective in not belonging to the public world of the senses, can be indirectly verified using empirical methods very similar to those used to access directly empirically verifiable truths. These are methods lawyers use every day to prove or disprove that a defendant satisfied the mens rea element of a crime. Since interpretation involves accessing objective truths or using empirical methods to access subjective ones, and since the methods of accessing objective truths involve emulating an objective person, interpretation at least partly involves striving to be objective.

This can’t be all it involves, however: what’s important is not equivalent to what’s causally efficacious. Here is where Feldman and Hannah-Jones are undoubtedly correct that a journalist’s attitudes, and in particular her values, will inevitably shape how she interprets the facts. For example, a commitment to moral equality may cause a journalist to train their focus on the experience of marginalized groups, that value informing what the journalist takes to be important. A merely objective person would have no idea of what facts are important in this moral sense.

Thus, a journalist must and should approach her practice with a complicated set of attitudes: striving to be objective (to be like an objective person) about the facts, while at the same time inevitably making choices about which facts are important based at least in part on her values. This is part of what makes journalism a difficult thing to do well.

Can We Trust Anonymous Sources?

photograph of two silhouettes sitting down for an interview

Ben Smith’s recent article in The New York Times about Tucker Carlson’s cozy relationship with the media has caused quite a stir among media-watchers. It turns out that the man who calls the media the “Praetorian Guard for the ruling class” loves to anonymously dish to journalists about his right-wing contacts.

Missing from this discussion about Carlson’s role in the media ecosphere, however, is any exploration of the philosophically rich issue of anonymous sources. Is the practice of using such sources defensible, either from a moral or an epistemic point of view?

First, there is an issue of terminology. A truly anonymous source would be something like a phone tip, where the source remains unknown even to the journalist. In most cases, however, the identity of a source is known. These sources are not truly anonymous, but could be called “unnamed” or “confidential.” For reasons that will become apparent shortly, it is never appropriate for journalists to publish information from truly anonymous sources unless the information is capable of being independently verified, in which case there is no need to use the anonymous source in the first place. When I talk about “anonymous” sources in this column, I am referring to confidential or unnamed sources.

The basic epistemic problem with confidential sources can be summed up as follows: we really can’t assess the truth of a person’s testimony without knowing who the person is. If a shabbily-dressed stranger shuffles up to you and tells you that JFK was the victim of a conspiracy, you’re likely to discount the testimony quite a bit. On the other hand, if the head of the CIA came out and made the same claim, you’d be likely to update your beliefs about JFK’s assassination. In short, many details about a person’s identity are relevant to the reliability of their testimony. Thus, without access to these facts, it’s almost impossible to know whether the testimony is, indeed, true. But in the case of anonymous sources, the public lacks the necessary data to make these judgments. So, we are in a poor position to determine the veracity of the source’s claims. And if we can’t assess the reliability of the testimony, then we aren’t justified in relying upon it.

This epistemic trouble can often become a moral problem. Anonymous sourcing can encourage people to believe that a source’s claim is more reliable than it is, and in this way it may mislead. But surely, journalists have a moral obligation to take every precaution to guard against this. One example of the way anonymous sourcing can mislead is the anonymous essay published by The New York Times in September 2018 purporting to be written by a “senior official” within the Trump administration. This essay caused many people to believe that a cabinet-level official was helming a resistance to Trump from within the White House, but it turned out that the writer was Miles Taylor, former chief of staff to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. There is a case to be made that the Times misled the public in that case, causing them to hope in vain that some sort of resistance to Trump was taking place in the upper echelons of the executive branch.

How should we go about solving this problem? How is the public to distinguish between the straight scoop and unsubstantiated rumor? How can we mitigate the harm that comes with directing public attention at a shaky story without losing the ability to speak truth to power?

Reporters’ primary answer to the problem of anonymous sourcing is to point to the reliability not of the source, but of the news publication. Call this the “vouching” solution. The reporter claims that people should believe an anonymous source because the reporter’s institution does; the source’s trustworthiness is a function of the trustworthiness of the publication. But this is like saying that you can justifiably rely on the shabbily-dressed stranger’s claim that JFK was the victim of a conspiracy because an honorable friend reports it to you, and you trust your friend to vet the stranger’s claim before presenting it. The trouble with this solution is that if we’re dealing with a truly anonymous source, our “honorable friend” – the news publication – lacks the necessary information to properly vet, and thus adequately vouch for, the stranger and their claims.

That our faith in news outlets justifies the use of unnamed or confidential sources is just one reason why it is so important for the news media to cultivate public trust. Unfortunately, however, people’s confidence in the mainstream media is at an all-time low. According to one recent poll, a majority of Americans do not have trust in traditional media. For these Americans, the vouching solution fails to even get off the ground. Moreover, for these Americans, it would arguably be irrational for them to rely on the media’s anonymous sources, given their skepticism. If one does not trust one’s friend, it would be foolish to rely on the sources for which one’s friend vouches. By the same token, if one does not trust the media, it would be irrational to rely on the anonymous sources for which the media vouches.

What does journalistic vetting of anonymous sources involve? One thing it does not entail is securing independent verification of an anonymous source’s information. If this were possible, then it would be unnecessary to grant a source confidentiality at all — journalists could just settle for the independent evidence. Thus, journalistic vetting usually involves scrutinizing the motives and behavior of the source. Is the source eager or reluctant to share information? Is she in a position of power or vulnerability? What is her agenda?

Which brings us back to Carlson, who seems like a signally poor candidate for confidentiality. Smith’s article makes clear that Carlson likes to portray himself in a flattering light to reporters, and that he is eager to share information. He is also, of course, in a position of great power and influence, and surely uses his effusions strategically to further his own agenda. For these reasons, using Carlson as a confidential source seems to be an epistemically and, because of the potential for misleading the public, ethically dubious practice.

Abusing Public Faith: Brooks, Gladwell, and Journalistic Ethics

photograph of newspaper vending machines with businesses in background

Not long ago it was revealed that David Brooks, well-known opinion columnist for The New York Times, and Malcolm Gladwell, long-time New Yorker journalist, had received financial compensation for lending their journalistic credibility to different corporate ventures. Brooks used his column on multiple occasions to talk up a project to which he had significant financial ties — a fact he failed to disclose to his audience or his editors — while Gladwell continues to feature prominently in General Motors’s recent environmental vehicle campaign. To many, these celebrity endorsements may not seem like grave offenses; Brooks and Gladwell simply leveraged their notoriety to their financial advantage like anyone else might. On what grounds could one possibly object? Surely it would be unfair to demand that journalists be held to a higher standard than their peers and forgo all those financial incentives that so many other professions unabashedly enjoy.

It’s often suggested that over-policing possible conflicts of interest leads to absurd results. We don’t want to demand that journalists be so disinterested as to require their withdrawal from public life. We would be doing ourselves a terrible disservice to bar those often best-informed and civically-minded from public work. We shouldn’t bind the hands of those best-positioned to do the most good. Everyone should have a stake in the social projects of their communities and feel free to get their hands dirty.

Following this line of defense, Brooks and Gladwell’s endorsements have been characterized as nothing more than the benign by-product of a personal hobby. Gladwell speaks of his private passion for autos (a self-professed “MASSIVE car nut”), and Weave is described as Brooks’s pet project. Their advocacy, then, is simply an immediate reaction to their emotional investment with, connection to, and curiosity in those specific enterprises. There’s no reason to assume nefarious intent; these writers were simply overwhelmed with zeal and couldn’t wait to share the good news with the rest of us.

But there’s a significant distinction that separates championing a cause from promoting a product. Believing in something and rallying support behind it doesn’t require reducing one’s audience to corporate marks. Journalists shouldn’t sully their reputations by engaging in manipulation. Confronted by these allegations, Gladwell has claimed that if he’s guilty of being bought, then all of journalism has been similarly corrupted by relying on advertising dollars to sustain itself. There is, however, a marked difference between the banner ads adorning a periodical’s website and a journalist voicing support and throwing their weight behind a brand. When reporters start delivering the testimonials, the line meant to establish journalistic independence gets blurred and the waters get muddied. (Consider, for instance, this ad presented as an interview and even invoking the name of one of Gladwell’s popular investigative works.)

That said, criticism of Brooks and Gladwell’s behavior tends to draw our focus to the wrong thing. Failure to disclose isn’t the most damning sin Brooks committed, and his after-the-fact admissions can’t rectify the harm. Likewise, the potential for conflicts of interest doesn’t adequately capture the risk Gladwell’s paid endorsement poses. These actions, at bottom, violate the cardinal rule of journalism: Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, and its first loyalty is to citizens.

It would be naive to think Gladwell’s corporate partners fail to appreciate what they are buying. Gladwell’s position is decidedly different from that of his commercial co-stars. He is not a mere entertainer; the value of his endorsement isn’t based on his ability to define what “cool” is. People give weight to Gladwell’s words because he promotes himself (and is promoted by institutions of journalism) as having the inside track on truth. Gladwell’s work weaves a complex story uniting social science and statistics — connections that are unintelligible to the rest of us. He divines the true way of the world and delivers these pronouncements to the masses. What Gladwell is selling, then, is a unique capacity for truth-telling. His trustworthiness depends on the public’s faith in the profession. His credibility and the credibility of the institutions he represents (just like Brooks’s) relies on transparency, accuracy, and unerring loyalty to the public. We believe him insofar as we believe journalism aims to benefit we, the people. To serve another master is to break this sacred bond. It is fidelity to this purpose – pursuing truth in the people’s name – that separates the devoted journalist from the faithless mercenary or fanatical partisan.

This is hardly the first time Gladwell has come under scrutiny for failing to respect the firewall we’ve erected to divide truth-telling journalists from marketing shills. But whether it’s speaking engagements, product placements, celebrity endorsements, or faux journalism, the rules of neutrality never change. The Society for Professional Journalists code of ethics is uncompromising in its guidelines about preserving journalistic independence: “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” The profession’s ethical code exists to defend the virtue of the entire field from those who would undercut it. For journalism to capably serve its necessary functions – as public forum, watchdog, and voice for the voiceless – it must be above suspicion.

It would be easy to dismiss these actions as isolated, one-off transgressions, but the consequences extend far beyond the responsible parties. These dealings undermine not only Brooks and Gladwell’s credibility, as well as that of The New York Times and The New Yorker, but also erode confidence in the profession as a whole. They threaten the finite, shared resource of public trust — a good that we are in greater need of now than ever.

In the Limelight: Ethics for Journalists as Public Figures

photograph of news camera recording press conference

Journalistic ethics are the evolving standards that dictate the responsibilities journalists have to the public. As members of the press, journalists play an important role in the accessibility of information, and unethical journalistic practices can have a detrimental impact on the knowledgeability of the population. Developing technology is a major factor in changes to journalism and the way journalists navigate ethical dilemmas. Both the field of journalism and its ethics have been revolutionized by the internet.

The increased access to social media and other public platforms of self-expression have expanded the role of journalists as public figures. The majority of journalistic ethical concerns focus on journalists’ actions in the scope of their work. As the idea of privacy changes, more people feel comfortable sharing their lives online and journalists’ actions outside of their work come further under scrutiny. Increasingly, questions of ethics in journalism include journalists’ non-professional lives. What responsibilities do journalists have as public-facing individuals?

As a student of journalism, I am all too aware that there is no common consensus on the issue. At the publication I write for, staff members are restricted from participating in protests for the duration of their employment. In a seminar class, a professional journalist discussed workplace moratoriums they’d encountered on publicly stating political leanings and one memorable debate about whether or not it was ethical for journalists to vote — especially in primaries, on the off-chance that their vote or party affiliation could become public. Each of these scenarios stems from a common fear that a journalist will become untrustworthy to their readership due to their actions outside of their work. With less than half the American public professing trust in the media, according to Gallup polls, journalists are facing intense pressure to prove themselves worthy of trust.

Journalists have a duty to be as unbiased as possible in their reporting — this is a well-established standard of journalism, promoted by groups like the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ). How exactly they accomplish that is changing in the face of new technologies like social media. Should journalists avoid publicizing their personal actions and opinions and opt-out of any personal social media? Or should they restrict them entirely to avoid any risk of them becoming public? Where do we draw the lines?

The underlying assumption here is that combating biased reporting comes down to the personal responsibility of journalists to either minimize their own biases or conceal them. At least a part of this assumption is flawed. People are inherently biased; a person cannot be completely impartial. Anyone who attempts to pretend otherwise actually runs a greater risk of being swayed by these biases because they become blind to them. The ethics code of the SPJ advises journalists to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” Although this was initially written to be applied to journalists’ professional lives, I believe that that short second sentence is a piece of the solution. “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” More effective than hiding biases is being clear about them. Journalists should be open about any connections or political leanings that intersect with their field. It truly provides the public with all the information and the opportunity to judge the issues for themselves.

I don’t mean to say that journalists should be required to make parts of their private lives public if they don’t intersect with their work. However, they should not be asked to hide them either. Although most arguments don’t explicitly suggest journalists hide their biases, they either suggest journalists avoid public action that could reveal a bias or avoid any connection that could result in a bias — an entirely unrealistic and harmful expectation. Expecting journalists to either pretend to be bias-free or to isolate themselves from the issues they cover as much as possible results in either dishonesty or “parachute journalism” — journalism in which reporters are thrust into situations they do not understand and don’t have the background to report on accurately. Fostering trust with readers and deserving that trust should not be accomplished by trying to turn people into something they simply cannot be, but by being honest about any potential biases and working to ensure the information is as accurate as possible regardless.

The divide between a so-called “public” or “professional” life and a “private” life is not always as clear as we might like, however. Whether they like it or not, journalists are at least semi-public figures, and many use social media to raise awareness for their work and the topics they cover, while also using social media in more traditional, personal ways. In these situations, it can become more difficult to draw a line between sharing personal thoughts and speaking as a professional.

In early 2020, New York Times columnist Ben Smith wrote a piece criticizing New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow for his journalism, including, in some cases the exact accuracy or editorializing of tweets Farrow had posted. Despite my impression that Smith’s column was in itself inaccurate, poorly researched and hypocritical, it raised important questions about the role of Twitter and other social media in reporting. A phrase I saw numerous times afterwards was “tweets are not journalism” — a criticism of the choice to place the same importance on and apply the same journalistic standards to Farrow’s Twitter account as his published work.

Social media makes it incredibly easy to share information, opinions, and ideas. It is far faster than many other traditional methods of publishing. It can, and has been, a powerful tool for journalists to make corrections and updates in a timely manner and to make those corrections more likely to be viewed by people who already read a story and might not check it again. If a journalist intends them to be, tweets can, in fact, be journalism.

Which brings us back to the issue of separating public from private. Labeling advocacy, commentary, and advertisement (and keeping them separated) is an essential part of ethical journalism. But which parts of these standards should be extrapolated to social media, and how? Many individuals will use separate accounts to make this distinction. Having a work account and personal account, typically with stricter privacy settings, is not uncommon. It does, however, prevent many of the algorithmic tricks people may use to make their work accessible, and accessibility is an important part of journalism. Separating personal and public accounts effectively divides an individual’s audience and prevents journalists from forming more personal connections to their audience in order to publicize their work. It also prevents the engagement benefits of more frequent posting that comes from using a single account. By being asked to abstain from a large part of what is now ordinary communication with the public, journalists are being asked to hinder their effectiveness.

Tagging systems within social media currently provide the best method for journalists to mark and categorize these differences, but there’s no “standard practice” amongst journalists on social media to help readers navigate these issues, and so long as debates about journalistic ethics outside of work focus on trying to restrict journalists from developing biases at all, it won’t become standard practice. Adapting to social media means shifting away from the idea that personal bias can be prevented by isolating individuals from the controversial issues, rather than helping readers and journalists understand, acknowledge, and deconstruct biases in media for themselves by promoting transparency and conversation.

Should News Sites Have Paywalls?

photograph of partial newspaper headlines arranged in a stack

If you’ve read any online article produced by a reputable newspaper in the last ten years, you’ve inevitably bumped into a paywall. Even if you’ve managed to slip through the cracks, you’ve seen a glaring yellow box in the corner, reminding you that this is your last free article for the month. Maybe this gets you thinking about the ethics of pay-to-read journalism, so you seek out articles like Alex Pareene’s piece for The New Republic, only to find that an article about the dangers of paywalls is hidden behind yet another paywall.

If you do manage to read Pareene’s piece, you’ll find that he makes some good points about what he calls “the media wars,” the uphill battle between costly but fact-based journalism (like The New York Times, which erected its paywall back in 2011) and the endless stream of accessible, but factually untrue, stories churned out by the conservative media machine.

How has reputable journalism become so unprofitable? First off, big tech companies like Google and Facebook receive the majority of ad revenue from online content, as Alex C. Madrigal explains. Local newspapers get lost in the bottomless sea of content, and are ultimately unable to compete. As a 2020 report from the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media showed, small news sources are disappearing at an alarming rate, creating “news deserts” in online spaces. Conservative propaganda machines, backed by a seemingly endless supply of money, swiftly filled that void, resulting in an increasingly homogeneous and right-leaning landscape of digital journalism.

As Pareene points out, putting up a paywall is “the only model that seems to work, in this environment, for funding particular kinds of journalism and commentary.” But if you do this, sites like Stormfront “will set up shop outside the walls, to entertain everyone unwilling to pay the toll.” Furthermore, “subscription models by definition self-select for an audience seeking high-quality news and exclude people who would still benefit from high-quality news but can’t or don’t want to pay for it. ” In other words, paywalls only perpetuate the divide between fact-based journalism and free propaganda.

But at the same time, paywalls are necessary for papers that value honest reporting. Solid journalism requires training, time, and money, and those who dedicate their life to the pursuit of the truth must be compensated for their labor. Free content is so easy to produce because it doesn’t require much time or effort to disseminate a lie.

It’s a problem without an easy fix. We might just encourage everyone to buy a newspaper subscription, but as the post-pandemic economy worsens, that solution appears less and less viable. A 2019 report released by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that a measly sixteen percent of people in the United States (the majority of whom tended to be wealthy and well-educated to begin with) pay for their news online. When only the well-off can afford quality journalism, fake news inevitably flourishes.

As Pareene says, this situation is not just a failure on the part of media outlets, but “a democratic problem, in need of a democratic solution.” This sentiment is echoed by Victor Pickard, who argues in his 2019 book Democracy without Journalism? that “Without a viable news media system, democracy is reduced to an unattainable ideal.” As the coronavirus pandemic continues to alter the fabric of everyday life, and conspiracy theories play an increasingly important role in national politics, reliable journalism is more important than ever, and new models for generating profit will have to emerge if anything is to change.

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

Trump, Berlusconi, and Double Standards on Tough Questions

two photographs: 1 of Donald Trump and the other of Silvio Berlusconi speaking at podiums

Since the election of Donald Trump, political experts have launched themselves into a comparison with his Italian version: Silvio Berlusconi. From his billionaire status to his physical height, the similarities between the two have been carefully examined in the hopes that the US could learn from Italy what to expect from the Trump administration. The comparisons made sense: Berlusconi and Trump indeed share many common traits. Their treatment of women and people of color, their financial privilege, their troubles with the law, their approach to tax evasion (as something to be flaunted instead of ashamed of), and their dismissal of journalism. Yet perhaps because the Trump administration created issues that a comparison with Berlusconi could not have helped solve, the similarities fell into silence. Until now.

On Thursday, just hours before his presidential debate with Joe Biden in Nashville, Trump released footage from his interview on CBS’s “60 minutes.” The video showed the president abruptly leaving the interview, calling the correspondent’s approach “no way to talk.” The interviewer, Lesley Stahl, is shown doing the job that a journalist should be doing, and doing it well: she asked challenging questions, questions that any politician would prefer not to answer, and she asked persistently, leaving no room for presidential monologues. The comparison with Berlusconi is unavoidable. In 2006, while Berlusconi was Presidente del Consiglio (the Italian version of Prime Minister), he was invited to be interviewed in “In Mezz’Ora” (“In Half an Hour”), a show conducted by the journalist Lucia Annunziata. Known for her professional and serious temperament, Annunziata kept asking pressing questions to Berlusconi, who eventually decided to leave the interview halfway through. While shaking her hand, Berlusconi scolded Annunziata for her “unfair treatment,” hinting at her alleged leftist bias. The similarities with Trump are particularly striking. Both time-constrained interviews (60 minutes in Trump’s case and 30 minutes in Berlusconi’s case) feature women interviewers relentlessly pressing for an answer that is concise and to the point.

Trump and Berlusconi’s reaction to their interviews also share similarities. In both, they complain about having been unfairly treated, hinting at the seemingly aggressive temperament of the interviewer who did not give them the opportunity to respond. In truth, both interviewers did give them time to reply, but not in the way Trump and Berlusconi are perhaps used to: by responding with overly long speeches about their achievements and ultimately avoiding the question.

What should we make of this comparison? I think the lesson to draw here is a double standard: both Trump and Berlusconi have a hard time maintaining poise in challenging interviews. Granted, interviews can feel like a difficult battle, a back-and-forth that hardly leaves time to breathe, but that rhythm is exactly what is so particular to journalistic style. Interviews are not – and should not – provide a sympathetic atmosphere where candidates can let themselves indulge in long responses that tout the importance of their qualities. Rather, they are a moment of scrutiny where one’s articulate responses are tested. Both Trump and Berlusconi fail the test: they show that they do not know how to deal with journalists (a remark Annunziata makes when leaving the show after Berlusconi storms out). This kind of behavior also hints at the inability to take one’s own medicine.

In the first debate with Joe Biden, Trump relentlessly interrupted the former vice president, often talking over him, and was repeatedly scolded by Chris Wallace, the moderator. If that is an acceptable way of interacting during a debate, then it should be so when other interviewers occasionally interrupt him to obtain a clear answer. Yet, to Trump it isn’t. Right before leaving his interview, Trump chastised Stahl’s approach as “no way to talk.” Notice the double standard here: it is no way to talk when such behavior is directed at him, yet it is acceptable when directed at others. The double standard brings to the surface a somewhat incoherent behavior. And this incoherence is more of a logical problem, rather than a political one. A double standard is not a formal fallacy, that is, a poorly construed argument, but it highlights an inconsistency between words and actions. Trump’s behavior towards Biden during the first debate paints a relentless exchange, yet his verbal remarks about Stahl’s approach toward him tell a different story: they lead to the conclusion that Trump will not endure such tough treatment.

Do we have an obligation to being consistent? Deeming a practice as wrong and nevertheless performing it might make one vulnerable to charges of moral hypocrisy. While it might be difficult to be consistent, our politicians should strive to meet this challenge. Avoiding special treatment and refusing a double standard sends a positive message: one that embraces reciprocal treatment and suggests that those who represent us are not above us.

Why Isn’t Everybody Panicking? Scientific Reticence and the Duty to Scare People

photograph of gathering clouds

In 2017, journalist David Wallace-Wells published an article, The Uninhabitable Earth, which told a frightening tale of possible scenes from a bad to worst-case scenario outcome of the effects of global warming, ecological degradation, and widespread pollution – effects ranging from extreme weather, sea-level rise, and wildfire to mass migration, food scarcity, and social collapse. “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” writes Wallace-Wells, “no matter how well-informed you are.”

The knowledge of how bad it could be has been around for a while. James Hansen first presented the case for possible harms of global warming, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, to the US congress in 1988. Given that the scientific evidence has always been out there for anyone to see (even though media reporting has usually been lean), why is it worse than we think?

There is an epistemic failure occurring: people in the affluent, industrialized world do not, in general, appear to know how bad the climate crisis is, and do not, in general, appear to appreciate how much worse things will get if we continue to burn fossil fuels and pollute the atmosphere.

There are two distinct but related knowledge gaps opening up – between previous scientific prediction and what is actually happening, and between what scientists know is really happening and what the public thinks.

The first problem arises from factors about the nature of climate science itself, like in-exactitude of knowledge. We cannot be sure, for instance, what precise degree of warming will result from exactly what new concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. The world appears to be warming faster, as ice melt and other such indicators are accelerating much faster that was predicted only a decade ago. A year ago, scientists concluded that the Earth’s oceans were warming 40 per cent faster than previously believed.

The second problem, that the public does not really know what scientists know, is not simply a problem of dissemination. The possible ramifications, from possible physical changes to the environment, to the social and humanitarian effects of these does not come straight off the data – it takes interpretation, thought, and imagination.

Doubtless, part of the knowledge difficulty, the epistemic deficit, is a form of cognitive dissonance. It is hard to imagine the scale of the problem. “Climate induced societal collapse is now inevitable in the near term” writes Professor of Sustainability Jem Bendell, “it may be too late to avert environmental catastrophe.” Part of the problem is that this does in fact sound like a crazy dystopian fiction.

This failure of the imagination is related to the problem of scientific reticence, which some have recently argued is having an adverse effect on policy action, and is even a dereliction of an ethical duty to seriously entertain possible (if extreme) scenarios. Scientific reticence arises both methodologically and stylistically. It takes the form of a tendency to understate the risks of global warming.

For instance, much of the scientific modelling, such as that used by the IPCC, has tended to largely underestimate the risks. IPCC climate modelling does not account for tipping points that result in non-linear, rapid, and irreversible chunks of damage, and trigger uncontrollable impacts. Melting sea ice and permafrost are some well-known tipping points. When sea ice melts, temperature rises are compounded by the reduction in reflective surfaces; and when permafrost thaws, large amounts of greenhouse gasses will be released and warming will leap.

Added to the difficulties of prediction and blind spots in the modelling capabilities is the generally conservative nature of science as a discipline. A great deal of the surrounding scientific literature to emerge over several decades has been conservative in its estimates of effects. That conservatism has meant that scientists are not conveying bad or worst-case scenarios to the public or policy makers.

When Wallace-Wells published his article, there was some pushback from climate scientists. Some felt that the science was not served by dramatizing the outcomes, and that really dire predictions might undermine scientific integrity with alarmism. There are some signs this attitude is beginning to change, but there are deeply embedded methodological, stylistic, and even ethical reasons for scientific caution.

Wallace-Wells says that he wrote The Uninhabitable Earth to address the fact that possible worse cases were not being talked about in scientific papers. (James Hansen is a notable exception to this, and he has written about the phenomenon of scientific reticence.)

Drawing attention to the dangers of global warming has at times caused cries of alarmism, and it has been suggested by Hansen that cautious or hesitant predictions are often perceived to carry more authority. The problem is that, now, it is looking like some of those worst-case scenarios are going to be much closer to the truth than the conservative underplay of catastrophe.

In any case it is becoming clear that science has not been effective at communicating the worst risks of climate change, therefore those who need to know these possibilities – the public and policy makers – have been ill-informed and ill-served.

In their paper What Lies Beneath, which explores the failures and blind spots of climate science’s understanding of the effects of global warming, Spratt and Dunlop write: “It is now becoming dangerously misleading, given the acceleration of climate impacts globally. What were lower-probability, higher-impact events are now becoming more likely.”

Scientific reticence has hindered communication to the public of the true dangers of global warming. This may in turn have directly (and indirectly) hindered action, which in turn has worsened the problem. Given that the findings of climate science research have existential implications for us, it could be argued that not entertaining the worst potential outcomes is a dereliction of moral duty as well as our duty to science.

There is a view that it is dangerous to frighten people too much, that the relevant information and worst risks worth considering are enough to scare the public into a sense of fatalism. Indeed, the news is bad, and at this critical time, resignation may be the last nail in the coffin (so to speak).

On ordinary scientific standards, incontrovertible confirmation will happen only when an effect has played out, or begun, and it will then be too late to abate it. The central ethical issue here is that ethics seems to be making an unusual demand on scientific communication, and on the translation of research data into conclusions needed by the public and policymakers – the demand to be a little more scary.

One could argue that man-made effects, which are likely to be harmful, should be treated differently from other types of observations and predictions, by virtue of what is at stake – and because caution could in this instance be a vice.

People aren’t scared enough about global warming. It is, as Wallace-Wells says, worse than people think – and though it may not be as bad as his picture, the trend so far points in that direction.

Having made that case, though, it must be acknowledged that scientific reticence might be peanuts next to the obfuscations of fossil fuel corporate rapaciousness, as a cause of the epistemic deficit our societies are in the (hopefully loosening) grip of.

The Harms of Reporting Political Insults

photograph of reporters' recording devices pushing for response from suited figure

This week I had the most amazing experience reading a news article. The article was discussing the preparations being made for the impeachment trial and I came across this sentence: “Trump tweeted right before and after Pelosi’s appearance, in both instances using derisive nicknames.” What an idea: to avoid repeating what is essentially name calling and to simply refer to what kind of statement was made. Afterall, what is the journalistic value of reporting that a politician called someone else by derisive nicknames and then repeating those nicknames? Does it make us more informed? Does it make national political debates any better? Perhaps not, and this means that the question about whether journalists should repeat such insults is an ethical one.

After the 2016 Presidential election there was much discussion about the issue of journalistic standards and the merits of covering a candidate like Donald Trump so much. Even before the election there were reports that Trump had essentially received over $2 billion dollars in free media simply because he was so consistently covered in the news cycle. Later there were those in the media, such as CNN President Jeff Zucker who acknowledged the mistake of airing campaign rallies in full as it essentially acted as free advertising. According to communication studies professor Brian L. Ott such free advertising did affect the electoral results. What this means is that media is not always merely a bystander covering election campaigns because that coverage can affect who wins or loses. This is relevant for several reasons when it comes to reporting and repeating political insults.

For starters, such insults can act like a form of fake news. Part of the problem with fake news is that the more it is repeated, even while being demonstrated to be false, the more people are likely to believe it. In fact, a study has demonstrated that even a single exposure to a piece of fake news can be enough to convince someone that its contents are true. Even when a report explicitly aims to repute some false claim, the claim itself is more likely to be remembered than the fact that it is false. Now, if we think about insults and nicknames as a piece of information, we are likely to make the same mistake. Every “Lyin’ Ted,” “Shifty Schiff,” or “Crooked Hillary” in some form offers information about that person. The more it is repeated the harder it is to repudiate claims related to it. No matter how many fact checks are published, “Crooked so-and-so,” remains crooked.

One may argue that if the media took measures to stop directly quoting such names and insults and simply noted the fact that an insult was made or is being popularized, then it is no longer performing its journalistic function of informing the public. It might be wrong to not report on direct quotes. However, if insults are more likely to stick in the minds of the public than the information repudiating the stories behind such insults, then the result may be a less informed public. As for the matter of reporting on quotes, this issue is already being discussed in terms of whether the media should repeat quotes that are factually incorrect. Darek Thompson argues that the media should put such quotes in “epistemic quarantine” by abstaining from direct reporting on the language being used in the name of securing the original purpose of journalism: to report the truth.

There is another objection to consider. By not covering insults and replacing them with general descriptions of the comments the media will no longer be reporting neutrally. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that politics is not just about information it is about branding. According to Amit Kumar, Somesh Dhamija, and Aruna Dhamija one outcome of political marketing is the political brand. If a politician is able to cultivate a personal brand, they can create a style and image which is distinct, and thus are able to target specific “consumer citizens” in a way such that politicians are able to establish an instantaneous reaction with the public.

For example, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spent years cultivating a brand beginning with his boxing match with a Conservative Senator, with it establishing a sense of “toughness, strength, honour and courage.” One can only imagine that his recent beard growth, with its ability to project experience, is an attempt to change that brand. However, just as a company’s brand can be tarnished, so can a personal brand. When an insult like “Cooked Hillary” is used in a repeated and targeted way, it damages that brand in a way distinct from merely insulting someone. It acts less as an assertion of fact and more like a way to connect concepts on a subconscious level. Thus, when the press repeats insults, they are acting as a form of advertising to attack a political brand. In other words, repeated reporting of such insults is already non-neutral in its effects.

Perhaps reporting insults still serves a journalistic purpose, however it is difficult to see what purpose that is. Such insults are less about the merits of policy and are essentially ad hominem attacks. In fact, the reporting of such ad hominem attacks makes addressing empirical claims very difficult. According to a study, attacking an individual’s credibility may be just as effective as attacking the claims that the individual makes. For instance, attacking Clinton for being corrupt “could be just as effective as actual evidence of criminality, and no less influential.” In other words, once an ad hominem attack is made, the empirical facts of the case do not really matter. Dr. Elio Martino of Quillette notes, “If attacks on a person’s character are effective, and potentially irreversible even with the subsequent addition of facts, it becomes easy to discredit people wishing to tackle the difficult but important issues facing our society.”

So, reporting ad hominem attacks essentially does not aid in keeping the public informed. However, others have noted that reporting insults only serves to make politics “more trivial and stupid.” In a polling exercise in Australia, a group sought to get voter perceptions of political leaders and to form a word cloud of the responses. The responses mostly consisted of insults. As Terry Barnes notes, “While it may be a bit of fun—and it’s always fun for the rest of us to see political figures publicly humiliated—this tawdry exercise dumbed our politics down that little bit further, trivializing for the sake of titillation.” This isn’t an issue isolated to one politician or one nation; reporting on ad hominem attacks is trivial and it damages our ability to carry on political conversations. It is hard to see what journalistic purpose the reporting of any political insult could have.

All of this brings me back to the article I began with. It was so pleasant to see a pointless insult not being directly quoted, but simply noted. My hopes were dashed, however, when I scrolled further to not only find the tweet containing the insult embedded in the article, but to also find the article itself later mentioning the “derisive nickname” in question: “Crazy Nancy.” Would I have been missing out to know that a politician insulted another without knowing what the insult was? I don’t think so.

The Problem with “Google-Research”

photograph of computer screen with empty Google searchbar

If you have a question, chances are the internet has answers: research these days tends to start with plugging a question into Google, browsing the results on the first (and, if you’re really desperate, second) page, and going from there. If you’ve found a source that you trust, you might go to the relevant site and call it a day; if you’re more dedicated, you might try double-checking your source with others from your search results, maybe just to make sure that other search results say the same thing. This is not the most robust kind of research – that might involve cracking a book or talking to an expert – but we often consider it good enough. Call this kind of research Google-research.

Consider an example of Google-researching in action. When doing research for my previous article – Permalancing and What it Means for Work – I needed to get a sense of what the state of freelancing was like in America. Some quick Googling turned up a bunch of results, the following being a representative sample:

‘Permalancing’ Is The New Self-Employment Trend You’ll Be Seeing Everywhere

More Millennials want freelance careers instead of working full-time

Freelance Economy Continues to Roar

Majority of U.S. Workers Will be Freelancers by 2027, Report Says

New 5th Annual “Freelancing in America” Study Finds That the U.S. Freelance Workforce, Now 56.7 Million People, Grew 3.7 Million Since 2014

While not everyone’s Googling will return exactly the same results, you’ll probably be presented with a similar set of headlines if you search for the terms “freelance” and “America”. The picture that’s painted by my results is one in which the state of freelance work in America is booming, and welcome: not only do “more millennials want freelance careers,” but the freelance economy is currently “roaring,” increasing by millions of people over the course of only a few years. If I were simply curious about the state of freelancing in America, or if I was satisfied with the widespread agreement in my results, then I would probably have been happy to accept the results of my Google-researching, which tells me that the status of freelancing in America is not only healthy, but thriving. I could, of course, have gone the extra mile and tried to consult an expert (perhaps I could have found an economist at my university to talk to). But I had stuff to do, and deadlines to meet, so it was tempting to take these results at face value.

While Google-researching has become a popular way to do one’s research (whenever I ask my students how they would figure out the answer to basically any question, for example, their first response is invariably that they Google it), there are a number of ways that it can lead one astray.

Consider my freelancing example again: while the above headlines generally agree with each other, there are reasons to be worried about whether they are conveying information that’s actually true. One problem is that all of above articles summarize the results of the same study: the “Freelancing in America” study, mentioned explicitly in the last headline. A little more investigating reveals some troubling information about the study: in addition to concerns I raised in in my previous article – including concerns about the study glossing over disparities in freelance incomes, and failing to distinguish between the earning potentials and difference in number of jobs across different types of freelance work – the study itself was commissioned by the website Upwork, which describes itself as a “global freelancing platform where businesses and independent professionals connect and collaborate.” Such a site, one would think, has a vested interest in presenting the state of freelancing as positively as possible, and so we should at the very least take the results of the study with a grain of salt. The articles, however, merely present information from the study, but do little in the way of quality control.

One worry, then, is by merely Google-researching the issue I can end up feeling overly confident that the information presented in my search results is true: not only is the information I’m reading being presented uncritically as fact, all my search results agree with and support one another. Part of the problem lies, of course, with the presentation of the information in the first place: while it may be the case that I should take these articles with a grain of salt, it seems that by the way the above articles were written, the various websites and news outlets that presented the information in such a way that they took the results of the study at face value. As a result, although it was almost certainly not the intention of the authors of the various articles, they end up presenting misleading information.

The phenomenon by which journalists reports on studies by taking them at face value is unfortunately commonplace in many different areas of reporting. For example, writing on problems with science journalism, philosopher Carrie Figdor argues that since “many journalists take, or frequently have no choice but to take, a stance toward science characteristic of a member of a lay community,” they do not possess the relevant skills required to determine whether the information that they’re presenting is true, and cannot reliably distinguish between those studies that are worth reporting on and which are not. This, Figdor argues, does not necessarily absolve journalists of blame, as they are at least partially responsible for choosing which studies to report on: if they choose to report on a field that is not producing reliable research, then they should “not [cover] the affected fields until researchers get their act together.”

So it seems that there are at least two major concerns with Google-research: the first comes relates to the way that information is presented by journalists – often lacking the specialized background that would help them better present the information they’re reporting on, journalists may end up presenting information that is inaccurate or misleading. The second is with the method itself – while it may sometimes be good enough to do a quick Google and believe what the headlines say, oftentimes getting at the truth of an issue requires going beyond the headlines.

What’s Wrong with State Media?

Graffiti image of three happy individuals under communist flag with Vietnam skyline behind

In a statement to the Washington Post earlier this month, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez announced that Fox News will not be allowed to host a debate for the 2020 Democratic Party primary election cycle. The DNC’s decision was based in part on Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article accusing Fox News of acting as a propaganda machine for President Trump’s administration. Mayer’s article points to frequent cross-hiring between network management and Trump’s campaign and White House administration, as well as the president’s consistent attention to shows like “Fox and Friends” to demonstrate the close relationship between the administration and the media outlet. The article even includes a quote from professor Nicole Hemmer, who calls Fox News “the closest we’ve come to having state TV.” Implicit in Hemmer’s statement and Mayer’s article is the premise that a state-run media network would be a bad thing for the United States. Leaving aside the debate over whether Fox News or any other news organization is disseminating propaganda, it is worth delving into why (or perhaps even whether) we should be worried about a state-run media in the first place.

A state-run news organization would seem to run counter to the values which inspired the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union specifically highlights the role of the press as a critic and watchdog of the government in service of the people. Investigative journalism is a necessary component of democratic society. The research undertaken by reporters into not only the government, but also businesses and wider societal trends helps the general public understand the world and current events. It seems likely that an organization funded, overseen, or otherwise closely involved with the government would experience a conflict of interest precluding the total fulfillment of this watchdog duty. Certainly, a country with only state-run media would be missing the opposition viewpoint critical to the democratic process. Without the full breadth of information, the general public would be unable to make informed decisions about the government, therefore depriving the people of the agency of self-governance that defines democracy.

The United States can look to other countries for models of what state-run media might look like. Russia, for instance, is widely regarded as operating state-controlled media: two of the biggest television channels, Channel One Russia and Russia-1, are controlled by the federal government, and the English-language network RT is also funded by the government. These media outlets tend to support the policies of the government, and some have accused these organizations of acting as propaganda machines for the Kremlin. In particular, RT has garnered attention because it is directed to a more global audience; while critics say it is designed to generate international sympathy for misguided or dangerous policies of Vladimir Putin’s administration, the network claims it is simply providing an alternative viewpoint to the largely anti-Russia opinions of other international news networks.

Many regard Russia’s control of media and restriction of free press as problematic. What is it about the media situation in Russia that constitutes a breach of ethics? Is it the presence of state-run media, or is it the absence of prominent independent media outlets? Perhaps the more pressing concern is the active legal restrictions on journalists who attempt to look too closely at issues like corruption. Journalists have been banned from Russia, sentenced to time in prison, and even attacked and killed, often under suspicious circumstances. These are obviously more severe threats to press freedom than state-run media, and one could argue that in the absence of such dire conditions, a state-run news outlet would not be an ethical violation in itself.

Being government-sponsored does not guarantee that a news network will collaborate closely with the government. One of the most well-regarded news organizations in the world is the British Broadcasting Corporation. While the BBC was founded by a royal charter and remains under the auspices of the government of the United Kingdom, its charter explicitly calls for the corporation to be “independent in all matters” and a provider of “impartial” services. One could argue that true independence is impossible while the future of the organization is determined by the government, but the presence of other, non-state news outlets in the United Kingdom suggests a much wider latitude of press freedom than in Russia.

Our fear of state-run media seems to stem from a fear of an Orwellian dystopia in which objective truth is hard to come by and public narratives are constantly malleable. The tendency towards a “post-truth” world seem ripe for sinister developments like manufactured consent, wherein public opinion is gradually and subliminally bent to suit the aims of policy makers and other power players. These fears seem even more troubling in the era of “fake news.” President Trump’s use of the phrase to discredit news outlets like CNN, as well as his suggestion for a state-run cable TV network, could be construed as part of a drive towards more extensive state control of the media.

But is there an upside to state-controlled (or at least state-funded) media? For several years, observers have been bemoaning the rise of clickbait—stories and headlines designed to grab immediate attention, often at the expense of in-depth reporting and thoughtful investigation. The primary motivation for this trend is to ensure a profit in the digital era. Free from the need to turn a profit, a state-funded media outlet would theoretically be better equipped to cover substantial, potentially unpopular stories. This is the mission of America’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a government-financed organization that provides some of the funding for public radio stations and other services.

All of this does not absolve Fox News from its duty to provide impartial coverage of government policy. Fox News is not openly an arm of the state: any connection or cooperation between the network and the Trump administration is covert. When it is perceived as an impartial, private corporation, any criticism or praise delivered by the organization to the government is taken as objective assessment, rather than propaganda. But precisely because it is perceived as a free agent, the network also has a duty to fulfill this expectation and act impartially; anything else would be misrepresentation, unethical not only to the extent that lying is unethical, but more so because of the special duty of the press in maintaining the democratic system. At the same time, it is difficult to ascertain true impartiality. The determining factor is intent, rather than outcome. An impartial organization coincidentally supporting the administration on every issue and a partial organization actively colluding with the administration would look practically identical to an outside observer.

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On The Times Op-Ed: Ethics of Anonymous Sources

PHotograph of Trump at desk in Oval Office surrounded by people

In light of a recent op-ed published by The New York Times, the validity of using anonymous sources in journalism has once again been brought into question. The op-ed, released to the public on September 5, was allegedly written by a senior official within the Donald Trump administration, and details an underground resistance against the President within his own staff. “[M]any of the senior officials in his [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations,” reads the piece. “I would know. I am one of them.”

The author then goes on to detail why this resistance is being executed, saying that Trump has blatantly attacked conservative values of “free minds, free markets, and free people,” and that his notion of mass media as the enemy of the people is “anti-democratic.” Further, the anonymous writer stated the goal of the White House resistance as being “to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing.” Sometimes this could be as simple as swiping papers from the President’s desk. In his book, Fear: Trump in the White House, celebrated journalist Bob Woodward details how Trump’s ex-economic advisor, Gary Cohn, stopped the President from terminating a trade deal with South Korea by taking a letter off his desk in the Oval Office.

Perhaps more intriguing than the contents of the op-ed itself, however, is the shrouded identity of its author. A number of theories about who in the administration could have written it have surfaced, including opinions from filmmaker Michael Moore and former aide to Trump Omarosa Manigault Newman. The President responded to the breach in his administration’s loyalty by lashing out on Twitter and at public events, going so far as to label the op-ed as “treason” and a threat to national security. Trump also told reporters that he wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the source of the article.

Despite the current drama surrounding the Trump administration, however, The New York Times has refused to disclose the author’s identity. A statement preceding the op-ed reads:

The Times is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”

The Times’ refusal to give up the author has undoubtedly been met with criticism both by the President himself and by his supporters, boiling down to controversy over when it is permissible for publications to distribute anonymously-produced content and when it is not.

Anonymous sources are, at their root, tools for journalists to get closer to exposing truth to the public. Although not preferable, anonymity protects people who hold incriminating or scandalous information from consequences upon revealing this information, which may sometimes be the only way of getting those people to talk. However, in today’s era of intense beat journalism, anonymous sourcing can sometimes be used haphazardly. In May of 2005, Newsweek published an article using anonymous sources who claimed that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Koran to intimidate Muslim prisoners, which sparked a riot in Afghanistan resulting in the deaths of 14 people. Lawyers later disproved these statements from anonymous sources, and Newsweek retracted its article.

What separates the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times from Newsweek’s Guantanamo debacle are the articles’ respective intentions. Newsweek published their article to establish fact: interrogators at Guantanamo desecrated the Koran to intimidate Muslim prisoners. Conversely, The New York Times’ article, published as an op-ed, serves the primary function of declaring the author’s opinion: Donald Trump is failing as a president, and “there are adults in the room” who want to protect the rest of the country from his shortcomings. The point could be raised that op-eds deserve known sources as well. Opinion articles come with their own claims that, if issued by reputable publications, should be written by verifiable experts. The editors of The New York Times, however, know the identity of the op-ed’s author, and given their reputation as a responsible publication, can be trusted to have thoroughly vetted their source’s claims. Given that The Times is a left-leaning publication, some of this criticism may be indirectly stemming from partisanship. Had this op-ed been published from a right-leaning publication, its relationship with public trust may have looked different. Moreover, it could be argued that the article’s groundbreaking content and consequences that will arise if the author’s identity is compromised outweighs the need for a publicly-known source.

Whether one believes this to be an act of heroism or treason by The New York Times, it is difficult to refute that this piece could change the way the public and journalists view anonymous sources. An anti-establishment culture that has budded in the past few decades has heightened the need for anonymous sourcing in journalism, and facing this phenomenon is essential to rebuilding the relationship between mass media and the public. Even if The New York Times was wrong in publishing this op-ed, they sparked conversations around journalism ethics that need to be had outside of the newsroom.


A Journalist Fakes His Own Death. Was His Decision Moral?

Image of Arkady Babchenko speaking with politicians.

Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko was allegedly murdered in Ukraine by hired killers working for Vladimir Putin’s regime. A picture of his body bathed in blood was publicized. Then, in an astonishing twist of events, 24 hours later Babchenko appeared in a news conference to inform that, indeed, he was alive, and it had all been a deception.

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The Ethics of Amateur Podcast Sleuthing

In late 2016, Up and Vanished, a podcast produced and hosted by independent filmmaker-turned-podcaster Payne Lindsey, released its first episode.  The topic of the podcast is the until recently cold murder case of Georgia eleventh-grade history teacher Tara Grinstead.  Grinstead went missing, presumably from her home in Ocilla, Georgia, in October 2005.  

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Buzzfeed’s Dossier Publication Threatens Trust in Investigative Media

Secret meetings in Moscow and Prague. Business leaders conducting sordid affairs with prostitutes. Russian intelligence services blackmailing the President of the United States.

The allegations sound like they found their way out of a political thriller. Yet they are all allegations leveled at Donald Trump and his presidential campaign in a dossier published in full yesterday by Buzzfeed. The report, formulated by a private intelligence firm during the 2016 election, was commissioned by Trump’s political opponents and details allegations that Russia has amassed embarrassing information to blackmail Trump once he becomes president. The dossier also alleges that surrogates for the Trump campaign met repeatedly with high-level Russian actors and discussed matters, including the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.

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Fake News and the Future of Journalism

Oscar Martinez is an acclaimed Salvadoran journalist for El Faro, an online newspaper that dedicates itself to conducting investigative journalism in Central America, with a focus on issues like drug trafficking, corruption, immigration, and inequality.  In a recent interview for El Pais, Martinez explains that the only reason he is a journalist is because “sé que sirve para mejorar la vida de algunas personas y para joder la vida de otras: poderosos, corruptos” (“ I know it serves to, both,  improve the lives of some people and to ruin the lives of others: the powerful, the corrupt.”) Ascribing himself to further reflection, in the interview, Martinez distills journalism’s purpose as a “mechanism” to bring about change in society; however, he does raise a red flag: “El periodismo cambia las cosas a un ritmo completamente inmoral, completamente indecente. Pero no he descubierto otro mecanismo para incidir en la sociedad de la que soy parte que escribiendo” (“Journalism changes things at a completely immoral and indecent rate. But I haven’t found another way to incite the society that I am writing in to change”). Martinez’s work sheds light and lends a voice to the plight of millions of individuals, and it is important to acknowledge and admire the invaluable work that Martinez and his colleagues at El Faro do.

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David Shields’ War Is Beautiful: Did Our Media Fail Us?

David Shields, an American author, has recently released his latest book: War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict. The book criticizes The New York Times, which, according to Shields, was complicit in protracting the Iraq War by presenting front-page photographs of the war in aesthetically attractive ways, blinding readers and making them insensitive to the real violence that happens in war.

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Aylan Kurdi and Ai Weiwei

Under ideal circumstances, the dinghy should have only held eight people. The same could have been said of the many boats that preceded it, in search of beaches in Greece. Yet, just as those before them, the rubber dinghy left the shores of Turkey’s Bodrum Peninsula in the early hours of the morning. Among the twelve people onboard were three-year-old Aylan Kurdi and his family, refugees from the besieged Syrian town of Kobane.

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Journalistic Ethics, Sean Penn, and Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone is in hot water over Sean Penn’s interview with notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, also known as “El Chapo.” The interview, conducted in October and published last Saturday, has raised concerns over Penn and Rolling Stone’s approach to the interview, and whether they handled the situation in an ethical manner. Numerous people have accused the magazine and Penn of violating journalistic ethics with the interview, while they have insisted they did nothing wrong.

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Trust in News Media Won’t Be Easily Restored

This post originally appeared in The Indy Star on November 2, 2015.

Anybody who has ever been lied to or betrayed by a friend or coworker knows just how difficult it is to re-establish trust in the offending party. Sometimes, credibility that is destroyed can never be fully restored. So it is with America’s news media, which recently got yet another dismal report on public perception of the journalism industry. The media face a stiff climb in order to get back in the citizenry’s good graces.

The annual Gallup survey of media trust shows only 40 percent of Americans have a great deal, or even a fair amount, of confidence that media report the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” That matches the historic low marks recorded in election years 2012 and 2014. Over the years of the Gallup research, the lowest citizen confidence in media has come during election years. This year, of course, is not a general election year. Almost a fourth of all Americans now say they have no trust in media reporting at all.

Respondents who report they are politically independent are turning against the media in big numbers. Only 33 percent of such citizens trust the journalism industry to be fair, down a staggering 22 points in just 16 years. Independents now view the media at about the same low level as Republicans, long considered the most distrustful of media.

The most disturbing component of the study is that younger adults, ages 18 to 49, have less media trust than adults over 50. Only 36 percent of younger adults have confidence in the media, down 17 points in the last 12 years. Young adults who already have a dim view of media fairness won’t be easily won back.

The decline of younger adults trusting the media is likely a factor in the dwindling number of people who seek careers as journalists. Enrollment in college journalism programs has dropped in recent years. The highly regarded Columbia University School of Journalism is cutting staff.

Of those students in college journalism and mass media programs, approximately 70 percent are studying advertising or public relations. There was a time when PR and advertising tracks were in the less prestigious hallways of j-schools. It is hard to blame college students, however, when public relations and advertising executives are viewed as more reputable than reporters. Beyond that, reporter salaries now average only two thirds of what a public relations specialist makes, and that gap is widening. The public thinks the journalism industry is weak now, and things will only get worse given that the best and brightest in colleges aren’t seeking news careers.

Beating up on the media is now a favorite sport of most political figures, and that sustained bludgeoning is surely a factor in sinking media trust assessments. President Obama, in spite of generally beneficial news coverage during his presidential campaigns, has fought the press on several fronts during his two terms, taking particular shots at Fox News.

The presidential candidates currently getting the most traction are all ripping into the media. Donald Trump and Ben Carson on the Republican side and Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have all trashed the news media in recent weeks. Politicians’ complaining about bad press is nothing new, but the intensity and constancy of the animosity is noteworthy. It’s resonating with voters because it reinforces current public sentiment.

The American people no longer view reporters as the public surrogates they should be. Trust can’t be restored until news audiences look at reporters and sense that the journalists represent the public’s interests. Trust can’t be restored as long as the nation’s news agenda is saturated with sensational, yet low impact, stories about pop culture figures, such as Cecil the lion and a county clerk in Kentucky.

Trust can’t be restored as long as the public senses that the news media are driven more by bottom-line profit and ratings motivations than by a sense of public service, even though those two objectives are not mutually exclusive.

The trust gap between the public and media industry can be closed only when news organizations get the courage to change the vision and prevailing culture of their newsrooms. The news industry, and the nation, can’t afford another 10-point trust decline in the next 10 years. If that happens, there will no longer be a news industry. Whatever is left over will be merely part of the creative writing industry.