The Toronto Star building. Credit: Thomas Hawk / Flickr

There are cliches about journalism that many journalists use to justify their work. Journalism is supposed to tell truth to power. It’s the first rough draft of history. It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. News is something that someone wants suppressed — everything else is just advertising.

Here’s the scoop: Hardly anyone who reads journalism believes that anymore.

It all boils down to who do you trust.

Trust is the currency that sustains most journalistic endeavours. Trust between reporters and their sources. Trust between reporters and their editors. Trust between readers and their chosen media. Trust that the facts have been verified and presented in context. Trust that reporters have no hidden agendas but operate in the public interest. Trust that all sides will be covered fairly.

If trust is lost, the public turns off or turns elsewhere, and that is happening to an alarming degree around the world, including in this country. The latest Ipsos poll of the public’s trust in professions shows only 26 per cent of Canadians trust journalists.

Now a major public opinion study in the United States has measured how little support journalism’s core values have among the people who still care.  It’s not a pretty picture. Perhaps that’s why you haven’t seen a story about it in your daily newspaper.

The study was done as part of the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It found that only 11 per cent of Americans fully support all five of the journalism values tested.

Those values are the same ones I tried to follow during my 55-year career in journalism. They are values still taught in journalism schools.

  1. Oversight. Be a watchdog. Hold people in power to account. Make them keep promises. Make sure politicians and business people operate in the public interest, not for personal gain.
  2. Transparency. Lift the veil on secrecy. Make sure the public’s business is done in public, not behind closed doors. Society works better if the public knows what is happening that affects our lives.
  3. Factualism. Verify information. The more facts people have, the closer they will get to the truth. Keep things in context.
  4. Give voice to the less powerful. Amplify the voices of people who are affected by events or are not often heard. Cover inequality. Pay attention to who and what are left out.
  5. Social criticism. Cast a spotlight on a community’s problems in order to solve them. Don’t just focus on what is working or what people are saying and doing.

Only one of those values had the support of a majority of Americans: factualism, the idea that more facts get us closer to the truth. Sixty-seven per cent of adults supported that.

You would think the findings would spur a widespread re-evaluation of the methods of journalism in newsrooms and journalism schools, especially basic notions of what kinds of stories are important to cover, and the way they are presented. But that has not happened in the six months since the study was released. The report of the Media Insight Project concludes, rather alarmingly: “When journalists say they are just doing their jobs, the problem is many people harbor doubts about what the job should be. (sic)”

This loss of trust has been identified by many media critics over the years, and some of the reasons for it were highlighted in a critical book I wrote about Canadian newspapers in 1998, when they were beginning to see sharp declines in readership and advertising. Yesterday’s News (Fernwood) put the blame squarely on journalists who I said had fallen out of touch with the needs of society and, in some cases, were contributing to society’s problems by focusing so much on what’s wrong. In fact, the U.S. study of trust found only 29 per cent of Americans support that kind of journalism today. The study’s authors suggested journalists should experiment with different story frames focusing on solutions instead of problems and broadening their moral appeal.

I do not know any Canadian news organization that is doing that or, for that matter, is even aware of this U.S. research. It’s as if journalists and journalism leaders here have a death wish.

Luckily, more is happening in the United States and Europe.

No one argues that the core values of journalism should be abandoned. It’s just that news organizations need to be more transparent with readers and viewers, and explain and show what those standards really mean.

Readers do not believe journalists when they say they are detached and objective and operate in the public interest. When you think about it, few people can pretend to be, particularly those who work for institutions like newspapers and television stations that are either heavily regulated by government or who benefit from substantial subsidies — in the case of newspapers, subsidies that journalism’s leaders have actively lobbied the federal government for because their paying customers have evaporated.

Jay Rosen, a prominent U.S. news consultant and critic, suggests journalists adopt a different approach, one he calls “showing your story.”

Instead of pretending you are neutral, “disclose what you think. Not everything you think but the part that readers, viewers and listeners should know about when they decide whether to trust your account of things.”

Rosen is the author of What Are Journalists For and professor of journalism at New York State University. He says:

“Instead of ‘We have no agenda other than bringing you the news as fairly and accurately as possible’ … you disclose your intent: To spur reform using the moral force of investigative journalism.

“Yes, it’s having an agenda but it’s an agenda that’s true to the principles of good journalism.”

In some cases “showing your story” might mean reporters abandon the third-person voice in their stories and tell them personally. Here’s how I covered this story and why and here’s how I reached the conclusions I did. It may mean linking the reader to documents you discovered and relied on, and verbatim interviews with key sources. It may mean suggesting solutions and keeping a story going until results are obtained.

Example: In the mid-1990s I approached the Toronto Star with an idea to engage my journalism students with reporters for a major investigative project. I was interested in unlocking the potential of the internet to tell stories more comprehensively. What would journalism look like if it was tailored first to the internet and only later adapted to print, instead of the other way around, which was the way things were done back then? The project was a good one — a deep dive into the secretive way doctors are disciplined for wrongdoing in Ontario. The chief reporter was the amazing Rob Cribb, then the Star’s principal investigative journalist who has gone on to found the innovative Investigative Journalism Bureau at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. I got money from my dean at Ryerson to pay a handpicked team of students to do the dog work of research, scouring files at the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons, searching court records of doctors who had been charged, and tracking what happened to them.

But Cribb’s editors at the Star wimped out. The story ran tailored exclusively for print one Saturday and Sunday, summing up months of research in one chunk, documenting egregious cases of doctors literally getting away with murder or serious misdemeanors and getting off with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. Either that or they simply moved to another province undetected. I estimated the project uncovered more than a dozen cases worthy of public concern and I pleaded with a senior editor to keep telling them until some action was taken. But I was dismissed as an out-of-touch critic and journalism school administrator. The Star moved on to other stories.

Imagine what impact the story would have had if all the data assembled by Cribb and my students had been available online — a list of doctors so people could check if their doctor had been disciplined and for what; an explanation of the extensive research that went into the story and the roadblocks encountered that prevented public access to important information; a list of “must-do’s” to fix the system; transcribed interviews with key sources so readers could make up their own minds.

The good news is that journalists in Europe have actively begun to explore what the lack of trust has cost journalism and what it might do differently. One example is the innovative Constructive Institute, launched in 2017 in Aarhus, Denmark, by Ulrik Haagerup, a former senior executive at Danish newspapers and broadcast outlets. Its goal is to transform journalism. It believes journalism took a wrong turn to negativity and sensationalism. It believes journalism is part of the problem in the lack of trust in democratic institutions. It believes journalism should learn to focus on solutions. It believes journalism is more than telling the who, what, when, where, why and how of things — it should ask “what’s next?”

The institute is well funded, it has reached out to a broad network of journalism’s leaders, it has led experiments in constructive journalism in newsrooms and it has taken in interns to experiment with new and more hopeful forms of journalism. So far at least, no Canadian media outlet or journalist has made contact.

Haagerup believes journalism has produced a world in which people believe crime is going up when it’s actually going down, where the fear of terrorism is rising but the actual risk of it is low, where people have lost trust in institutions and so elect leaders with simple answers and ones who stoke fear.

Does that sound familiar?

Says Haagerup:

“We don’t believe in the in churches , we don’t believe in banks, in insurance companies, in politicians and all of it for many good reasons. But if people do not believe in journalism then who should they lean on? We need to re-establish journalism as an authority in democracy.”

Good luck to him, I say. And perhaps some day soon one of the leaders of Canadian journalism will pay attention.

John Miller

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn’t like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy...