Remarks I delivered at OUDaily’s spring staff training today.
Let’s start with a single word: Trust.
Its significance is, in a way, the unmentioned foundation holding up all of Ben Smith’s memo, which serves as one of the most revealing glimpses of the broader ethical challenges in media today.
So take a second and think about how you define trust.
What it means to you as an individual. How it might differ among friends and family. In personal and professional relationships. With institutions and authority figures.
Consider how it evolves as it moves through that spectrum of people and places and periods in your life.
Now, bring it into this space and what brings us here together today.
What does trust mean in journalism?
Here’s Merriam-Webster’s fifth definition, which I like best:
a charge or duty imposed in faith or confidence or as a condition of some relationship (emphasis mine)
As we start this semester, I’d suggest nothing is more important than trust. In our families and with our friends. In our society at large and in the work we all do as individuals.
But particularly in this work we do as journalists.
I walked out of The Daily for the last time as a student in May 2000. A few weeks later I walked into The Oregonian. I was 22, not much older than many of you today.
I had never lived anywhere more than three hours from Norman. I had never worked in a newsroom of that size or stature. And on Day One, I was terrified the editors would realize the terrible mistake they’d made by selecting me. As some of you might once have felt, or perhaps still do here today, I was convinced I had no place being there.
I’m serious when I say that feeling persisted in some way every day I worked in Portland.
For what was originally to be 12 weeks of an internship but which turned into 14 years of employment. From the best of days — copy-editing a Pulitzer-winning project at 23, becoming an assistant bureau chief at 29, becoming a department head at 34 — to the worst of days.
Through it all, this thought was somewhere in my mind: Earn their trust.
But I couldn’t just ask for it; I had to demonstrate, to show — through my work and actions — that I was worthy of it.
Now, pivot. Drop your journalist perspectives; play the role of media consumers. Readers, viewers, audience, whatever you call them. The communities we serve.
How much do they trust us? Why should they trust us? What good is media if not trusted? And how is trust earned?
The polling group Gallup has been examining Americans’ trust in the media since 1972, the same year as the Watergate break-in. In 1976, two years after President Nixon resigned in large part as a result of fearless and tireless investigative journalism, 72 percent of Americans said they trusted the work we do.
I know that seems like the dark ages to you as college students in 2017 — it was before even I was born.
But also know this: Trust in media has been steadily declining since, and in recent years the challenge has grown only more stark with the polarization of cable news, the fracturing of legacy media’s business model and the rise of a deafening social media echo-chamber. The most recent numbers were the worst yet: 32 percent.
And that figure, which Gallup describes as “a stunning development for an institution designed to inform the public,” came from a survey completed before November’s election. …
Before the media misjudged the biggest surprise in modern American political history…
Before an earnest conversation began about importance of media literacy…
Before the editor of Buzzfeed wrote this week, “Publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”
Media has never been more in flux, but some foundational elements remain unchanged. Trust but verify, of course. But also the reality that individually and as institutions, trust is gained in small measures and lost in large chunks. And today, that trust is much harder earned and much easier lost.
Not too long after starting this job I watched a previous Daily editor-in-chief struggle to keep the faith in the face of frequent reader criticism even though her team was inching forward our public reputation. They were doing good, occasionally great, work but they were digging out of a deep hole.
In August 2012, The Daily had published a graphic unredacted autopsy report on a student who had fallen to her death from Evans Hall. Editors faced a swift and harsh response from the community and quickly took down the autopsy document. Although the unnecessary details were online for only a short time, the trust the community placed in The Daily was damaged in a lasting way.
We’ve had other missteps, large and small, since. We will continue to. The Daily, by definition, is a place to learn and explore how to be journalists, and at times that means learning what not to do. But that brings us back to today, to you, this semester and this question.
How will we keep building trust with one another in our newsroom and with the OU community we serve?
My suggestion to you would be to approach it like I did as that confidence-lacking 22-year-old at the beginning of my career. Like I’ve see you all do more and more with coverage, particularly of our activist community, last semester.
Don’t get out in the community and show up at events just when you have a story to do. Don’t reach out to sources only when you need them to comment on the crisis of the moment. This work, done right, is not as just a series of simple one-off transactions, exchanges of no ongoing consequence.
Rather, in matters small or large, whether with one another or with sources, whether on individual stories or broad arcs of coverage, I challenge you be more authentically engaged, to commit, to care — and care deeply about each other, this work we do and the impact we can have together on and for our community.
View this work as a series of small steps forward in a long-term relationship. A relationship bigger than you, your particular role and this semester.
Thank you. I’m excited to see were you all take us this semester and into years to come.
Post-script: Here’s the video not planned in my original remarks but which I referenced on the fly regarding our editors’ visit with OU women’s basketball coach Sherri Coale on Thursday, and her stating in another (much more eloquent and compelling) way that the process, the collective work we undertake, is so much more important than the outcome. None of that happens absent a deep and abiding trust.