The Digital Journalist

Talk the Talk
July 2007

by Mark Doremus and Karen Slattery

What's a journalist to do?

Trust in the local news media continues to erode. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) reports that only six out of 10 readers believe most or all of what they find in their local newspaper. Worse still, only two out of 10 viewers believe most or all of what's broadcast on local TV news (2006 data).

Scary, especially for TV.

Without knowing for sure what's going on in the readers' and viewers' heads, we have a few suggestions about ways to beef up those numbers. All revolve around the concepts of loyalty and trust.

But first, it is important to look at just whom or what we do trust. In the context of the news media, we trust people and institutions that:

• Have a track record of reliability

• Are loyal first to the public, not to advertisers and other interest groups

• Adhere to a coherent set of values and principles

For most people, the reliability of news is tough to judge. Unlike journalists, most readers and viewers are not present at news events, nor do they have access to independent sources.

There are clues, of course, to the reliability of any news outlet: those that seem restrained, judicious and respectful of all points of view probably look more reliable to people than the ones that shout, spread rumors and take sides. (In the language of the PEJ, we're talking style of prose, quality of analysis and breadth of topics).

Beyond that, readers and viewers are left with perceptions of a journalist's – or news outlet's – loyalty and values.

In fact, the PEJ's "State of the News Media 2007" report hints at the importance of the loyalty factor in local TV news. A fear that newscasters may be "selling out" to advertisers by accepting fake news stories has helped push down the credibility of local news outlets, according to the report. This demonstrates how a perception of divided loyalties – audience versus advertisers – erodes trust in the news media.

Finally, we come to journalistic values. Most journalists take them seriously, at least if you believe the PEJ. The problem, in our view, is that journalists are not adequately communicating their professional values to the public.

So, back to the original question: "What's a journalist to do?"

Well, first of course, walk the walk. Be reliable. Be loyal to the public interest. Stick to your professional values.

Beyond that, talk the talk.

The PEJ says that the public thinks that news organizations operate primarily to make money, and that their employees are motivated primarily by "ambition and self-interest."

Putting the first claim aside, what about the second? What are your motivations as a journalist? Your loyalties? Your professional values? Are you talking about them publicly?

Maybe you should be.

One place to communicate, of course, is on the Web. Most news outlets seem to host staff blogs. If you have one, think about it as a way to connect with news consumers who want to know the truth about your profession.

There are many other opportunities. You can write for other media, appear on talk shows, go into classrooms, give speeches to civic groups, and organize events where you can introduce yourself – and your professional values – to ordinary people.

The most important feature of a professional journalist is a reputation as someone who is trustworthy.

Let's make sure we're getting the word out.

© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.