Salvaging trust: confronting journalism’s deep wrongs

You can't just issue a correction for deep wrongs.

The Nieman Journalism Lab published articles at the end of 2016 by a host of journalism experts. They said many smart things about what to look for in 2017 regarding journalism and media.

There is a particular idea in those articles that stood out to me. Over and over again people would come back to the nature and importance of trust.

Trust is oxygen, they would say. Trust is life for a news organization. Trust makes the world turn, they wrote. Trust is purpose in an uncaring information universe. Trust is the unseen energy that binds the world and gives it motion. Trust is the force that resists the second law of thermodynamics and slows and even reverses, in certain local contexts, the tendency towards chaos and heat death.

Trust is a big deal, see. Because the media business is the business of influence.

And trust is the oxygen that makes the rocket of influence break orbit. Trust is the life of influence. Trust makes the world of influence turn. Trust is the purpose that makes influence possible in an uncaring information … and so on and so forth.1

So why do certain Canadian media giants, like Postmedia and The Globe and Mail, keep lighting our trust on fire?

Well, here’s an idea: they don’t actually understand why people are losing trust. And when they’re confronted by the growing data about diminishing trust they turn to a deep roster of excuses and evasions and derailments. Or they pray that someone will make another movie about Spotlight.

And here’s a corollary: they never put out the fires that started burning years ago. Media organizations are bad at saying when they get something wrong. I’m not talking about typos and corrections. They do okay at that.2 I’m talking about the year long, and decades long narrative mistakes. I’m talk about the institutional errors that are hard to even call errors because they are so deep, and so cutting, and so deeply fucking alienating that calling them errors seems silly.

Let’s call them deep wrongs. They’re the ones that are so longstanding and so influential in the public discourse, that they’re hard to see. They can only be measured over long periods of time. And they’re easier to see once the era is over, or in other jurisdictions (think of weapons of mass destruction in the American media). Newspapers usually just hope no one goes back and looks at what they said. And if someone does remember that bit of inconvenient history, then news orgs just play the “it’s-in-the-past” card.

But what if audiences are actually paying attention to the historical record of what Postmedia has had to say about one of these topics. In other words, what if audiences are seeing and understanding deep wrongs.

Say, climate change. What if, by and large and in the long run, they and other Postmedia outlets have obfuscated the issue? Suppose they’ve made understanding global warming hard for readers to understand. First they denied the reality of climate change. Then they denied the importance of climate change. Then they denied the ability of humans to do anything about climate change. Then they denied that it is was worth doing anything about climate change.3

And maybe, just maybe, people are actually keeping track. And their trust is on fire. And the fire grows.

Now maybe the Calgary Herald, and other Postmedia outlets, can argue they were confused and they will do better. Maybe they will hire a shiny new environment reporter that posts anodyne, little-read dispatches in the middle of their paper. Maybe they will invite environmental organizations to post blog posts under the Postmedia banner. Let’s rebuild trust!

But we’ve never heard Postmedia say that they have been getting the reality and salience of global warming wrong. This is not just a typo. This is not a matter of deleting an article.

What would it take to atone, truly atone, for the magnitude of their having fucked this issue over for so many years?

And what if it’s not just climate change? What if it’s immigration. Racism. Islam. Indigenous land rights. Colonization. Unions. Police violence. Rape culture. There are many topics covered by Postmedia and the Globe and Mail that might qualify as deep wrongs. It would take more than publishing a single podcast season on racism to win back our trust.4

On this view, as long as news orgs treat deep wrongs as typos, our trust will burn.

And they will lose influence.

  1. I shouldn’t make fun. There’s some good ideas in those articles, actually. Elizabeth Jensen hopes that journalists will rebuild trust in 2017 by showing their work. I think that’s a good idea.
  2. After publishing this post, I was reminded by Martin Dunphy, who I admire and who is senior editor of the Georgia Straight, that sometimes media giants don’t do a good job of corrections. He was speaking of the way The Globe and Mail and The National Post have been handling the news surrounding John Furlong. I think Dunphy is right, and I think that the Furlong file probably qualifies as a deep wrong.
  3. Note that this institutional narrative is a statistical beast. It’s a kind of “by and large and in the long run” view of what Postmedia has done on this topic.
  4. I truly did enjoy Colour Code, by Denise Balkissoon and Hannah Sung.

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