Sep 24, 2009

Trust is valuable

Most people haven't thought much about what distinguishes a piece of journalism produced by, say, the Miami Herald from a piece of journalism produced by, say, World Net Daily. Neither are the subtleties dividing a Huffington Post roundup on protests in Iran and BBC story on the same topic much debated around the dinner table.

In the past, the more consistently credible reporting came bundled in a newspaper or beaming out of the radio; the less credible stuff got passed around in glossy tabloids, partisan newsletters or by word of mouth. Now all of it arrives on the same screen and often through aggregation sites that don't distinguish the well-researched, impartial story from the breezy opinion piece. Wheat and chaff are linked to side by side - and there's nothing to say any two people will agree on which is the wheat and which is the chaff.

That's not to say people don't know the difference between what Townhall does and the Los Angeles Times does - although the lines between opinion and straight reporting are getting more blurred, and not to the benefit of the reader.

Which is why the intellectual appeal to readers to pay for quality journalism, produced with high standards and under the rigors of honest editorial review, will probably never work. Instead, news organizations should come up with new ways to communicate clearly what standards and ethics they subscribe to. It will require publications to think through issues that they are too often on auto pilot about. Slogans ('Fair and Balanced') won't do the trick. And there will have to be a level of engagement with and accountability to readers that goes beyond feedback for the sake of feedback (as most online comments, reader surveys and letters to the editor are these days).

Bits of information might be passed around the Internet such that everything gets covered in the same mud, but serious readers will track information back to an original source. Original sources that have clearly laid out why their reporting is trustworthy will have a value that distinguishes them in the eyes of advertisers and potential subscribers/donors/micropayers.

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