A few weeks ago, I was part of a panel discussion on “Discerning the Truth,” sponsored by the Oklahoma Business Ethics Consortium.
And, as you might expect, the discussion centered on the media: What and whom can you believe in this age of nonstop news cycles, social media addiction and questionable news sources?
Those aren’t easy questions to answer.
There was a time when CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite was considered “the most trusted man in America.” That’s been so long ago there aren’t many of us who might even remember that a journalist once held that title.
One of the panelists at the OK Ethics discussion was Rachel Anderson, Tulsa campus director for Greenheck Inc. Her degree is in journalism, and she is a former public relations consultant. In part of her remarks to the group, she focused on the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, which came out in January.
In that well-respected report, there is some good news for journalists — the public still distrusts the media, but not as much as they did in the 2018 report.
The Edelman Barometer measures trust from two groups — “the informed public” and “mass population.”
According to its Executive Summary, the informed public represents about 16 percent of global population and is defined as between the ages of 25-65, college-educated, and in the top 25 percent of household income per age group in each of the 15 global markets that are surveyed. Additionally, this group reports “significant media consumption and engagement in business news and public policy.”
Mass population is defined as “all respondents not including Informed Public” and represents 84 percent of global population.
Just the explanation is pretty dense.
Bottom line is that from the 2018 to 2019 Barometer, the media went from a trust level of 54 percent to 58 percent within the informed public and from 44 percent to 47 percent within the mass population category — a very limited trust from one group and distrust from the second.
Interestingly, government trust mirrored that of the media.
So if you’re a politician and you’re gloating because people don’t trust the media, go look in the mirror — you’re right there with us!
The Edelman Trust Barometer also reports, “In 2019, engagement with the news surged by 22 points; 40 percent not only consume news once a week or more, but they also routinely amplify it.” And by amplify, they mean that they share news on social media.
And while we’re doing all that sharing, Edelman says that “people are encountering roadblocks in their quest for facts, with 73 percent worried about fake news being used as a weapon.”
Which brings me back to the topic at hand: How do you discern truth in the media? Whom can you trust?
Another OK Ethics panelist was Dick Pryor, general manager of KGOU, the public radio station at the University of Oklahoma. He anchored the Oklahoma News Report for 17 years on OETA, Oklahoma’s public television station, and is a member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame.
He put together a list of 20 questions for news consumers who are interested in finding a trustworthy news source. But it definitely requires work on the part of the reader and/or viewer.
Here are a few examples:
How long has the news entity been in business? According to Pryor, “Organizations that have stood the test of time are more likely to be reliable.” Did I mention that the Tulsa World has been in business since 1905? That’s a pretty long time.
Who is their audience? He says, “In my opinion, organizations that are intended to appeal to broad audiences are generally more likely to be fair than those targeting specific audiences and appealing to special interests.” The Tulsa World targets a general audience and always has.
Do they subscribe to and operate under a code of ethics? Again from Pryor, “Professional news organizations and reporters are up-front about their commitment to ethics and take it seriously.” Here at the World, we have an employee handbook that includes a statement on ethics and a code of business conduct and ethics.
What do they do when their reporters make a mistake? “Professional news organizations promptly retract or correct mistakes and discipline reporters and editors who make egregious or consistent mistakes and violate rules of ethics.” Corrections appear on Page 2 of the Tulsa World. They are run in the same place so that readers can easily find if something has been corrected. Those stories are also updated online with the correction at the top of a story. Some online sites may correct a story but don’t say how the article has changed.
If you want to view all of the questions that Pryor recommends asking, go to this story on tulsaworld.com. I recommend it.
Ultimately, trust in the media has to be earned by the media. We have to be transparent about what we do and how we gather news. We have to be transparent about the decisions we make. We have to operate ethically and honestly. We have to maintain our credibility.
We are responsible to our readers and our community. We have to answer your questions and respond to your concerns. We won’t always agree, but we have to be willing to have those conversations.
So to those of you who trust the Tulsa World, thank you. To those of you who are looking at us and asking questions, we hope we pass the test.