Friends, neighbors, family members, I come here to provide insight to my industry, to my career, not to praise it.
I grew up in an era when the most trusted man in America was Walter Cronkite. He sat in our living rooms and delivered depressing news of war and grief with a gentleness that put you at ease. The crack in his voice when Uncle Walter told us of President Kennedy’s death was an unintended moment of transparency that said he was one of us, not some haughty celebrity imparting wisdom from on high, but a trusted confidant. To many of us, Walter Cronkite, a member of what is now known as the “mainstream media”, was as honest as mom’s loving embrace.
What happened? Did the business of delivering news change, or is it the attitudes of those who digest the news?
Actually, it’s both.
The last five years have brought more jarring changes to my industry that the previous thirty. It’s not just me and the journalists from other local media outlets out there hunting for news. The mushroom cloud that is social media allows just about anyone walking by a crime scene to serve as a “reporter”. Snippets of “news” fly at you that come, at times, with conjecture and alarm. I’m not trashing social media, because I use it. But information there can be so fast paced and so very unfiltered. Often, it is our job as experienced journalists to wade through the hysteria to find what’s true and what’s not. It can get confusing for those who consume it all. Who do you trust, the journalist appearing on your television screen, or the 140 characters and the hashtag you saw an hour ago?
Podcasts, blogs, phone apps…it’s overwhelming. I thought BuzzFeed was a place to find out which character from Gilligan’s Island you are most like. Now I find they have a news department. So does Yahoo, Google, and…Comedy Central. Yes, there are people who lump The Daily Show, a comedic parody, with NBC, Fox, and CNN.
It’s confusing for everybody.
Recently, I’ve read references to “the media” as if it was some single, giant, amorphous being sitting in a dark star chamber dictating who gets to know what. Instead, it is a collection of individuals, real human beings with different backgrounds, experiences, and motives for pursuing a career in this often vilified industry. We go about our work in different ways, but when it comes to building trust, the rules are the same. Journalists must be honest. Mislead your viewers, or a source, and your credibility vanishes. You must be fair. There are often ten sides to a story, and the truth can be hard to find. You can’t take shortcuts.
Those who fake it don’t last. They never do.
I find it important to let everyone in earshot know that I’m nothing special. I make mistakes just like everyone else, and I’m not above admitting it. I have the same struggles and insecurities that you do. Stress often gets the better of me. I do my very best to treat everyone with respect. Sometimes I fail. It’s the cost of being human.
The recent criticism of my business is something I don’t take personally. Instead, I view it as a challenge. The accusations of “fake news” and corruption are coming from more than one place. Even if it’s perception over reality, it should be a concern for every single journalist. There are people in this country who simply don’t believe us, no matter how pure our motives, no matter how hard we work to find and reveal the real truth, and not just our version of it. So, we have to work harder. It’s the only solution.
Lashing out at those who criticize us isn’t productive. I’m not saying we need to back away from our responsibility to hold the powerful accountable, to question and dig and hold our elected officials responsible for their actions. But we have to go about our work fully aware that there are people who do see us as biased and selfish. We need to be more honest than ever, more transparent than ever. We need to be humble. We need to listen.
There are, indeed, people out there posing as journalists who do have an agenda. As true journalists, we need to be more responsible than ever so our voices are heard over the distracting cacophony.
We need to let America hear the crack in our voice, as Walter Cronkite did so long ago.
I sure wish the most trusted man in America was still around to provide some sound advice.
Something tells me that in his gentle, avuncular way, he would remove his glasses, look at me through the television screen, and tell me to stay true to the honest, God fearing values that led me to this business in the first place.