Deborah Potter On Journalism And The Public Trust

Mar 13, 2018

"Journalism and the Public Trust" is a well-timed course being taught this spring at the University of Montana by visiting Pollner professor Deborah Potter. Potter has covered the White House and Congress for CBS, and environmental issues and national politics for CNN. She recently sat down in our studio with Sally Mauk, to talk about "fake news" and attacks on journalists and news organizations. Polls show two thirds of Americans don’t trust the media to report the news accurately. Potter says the decline in trust has been underway for a long time.

Deborah Potter: Every year the Gallup poll is reported and it's yet another new low. The only thing I can tell you is the low that was reached in 2016 didn't get any lower in 2017. And in fact what has really changed is the partisan split on the subject. If you look at the most recent poll, Democrats say they do trust the media considerably more than they did a year before to report the news fairly and accurately, whereas Republicans stayed right at the bottom. Only 14 percent of Republicans say they trust the news media to report the news fairly and accurately.

Sally Mauk: And what do you attribute that split to?

DP: Well, I think that the most recent divergence is probably due in large part to the coverage of President Trump. Republicans think he's covered unfairly. Democrats think the coverage is fair and are in fact, politically at least, opposed to the president. And so anything that has been negative — and there's been a lot of negative coverage, let's admit that — they feel is credible. So I think that's the primary reason for the most recent split.

SM: And the president says every opportunity he gets, "fake news, fake news, fake news."

DP: Yes. And it's been a rallying cry for his supporters. Many other elected officials in the U.S. and abroad have picked up on the "fake news" commentary. What's interesting is if you ask people what they think fake news is, Republicans and Democrats see it differently. So Republicans will often say, fake news is, you know stories that are just negative. And Democrats will say, you know, fake news is stories that are made up — which I think most journalists would agree with.

DP: There is such a thing. Although I hate calling it fake news because that suggests it's news in the first place. It's really not. It's falsehood. And I feel more comfortable describing it that way. But there are a lot of people who think that, you know, negative news is "fake."

SM: Despite that sort of political partisan split, there are people on the left as well who believe news sites that many journalists would find to be falsehoods. So there is that as well. There's a dis-trust of so-called mainstream media on the left as well.

DP: That's true, although I think it's a smaller group. But you're right. If you look for partisan sites, partisan "news sites;" you will find just as many on the left as on the right. And they have proliferated in the last decade to the point where even if you look back a few years you can hardly find a nonpartisan site starting up as a news site. Almost all the new ones that are popping up have a partisan slant.

SM: Do you equate that with falsehood, if it's partisan?

DP: No I don't. A lot of people will tell you that Fox News is lies, right, or that MSNBC lies. I think that their news comes at it from a different direction but they're not lying. There's a definite difference. And frankly, I understand the debate over whether even to use the word lie. Lie to me sounds like, indicates at any rate, that someone is saying something false and they know it. It's intentional. It's deliberate. I don't think we can know the intent of a lot of people who say things that are not true, that are false, but they may not actually be categorized as a lie.

SM: So Fox News is not "fake news"?

DP: No, I don't think so.

SM: And MSNBC as well?

DP: No.

SM: But they do have a point of view.

DP: They do come at the news from a different perspective, certainly.

SM: So, what is the danger if this persists?

DP: I think there's real danger to one of the foundations of our democracy, which is an informed citizenry. You know, we are based as a nation and as a government on the concepts that Americans should be well-informed so that they can exercise their democratic right and choose their leaders. If we can't agree on the basic facts basic — facts, not just a perspective, but what happened — that, I think, begins to erode that singularly important characteristic of a democracy which is: the citizenry needs to be informed before they cast a ballot, before they choose their leaders. And it's hard to be informed if what you see before you is such a range of possibilities. I mean just take science for example, like take climate change. There's a scientific consensus on climate change. There are facts about climate change, and yet you have a large, still a minority, but a fairly large minority of Americans who think it's a hoax. It's not. Right? There's factual information behind it. But if we come to make policy based on people disagreeing about facts, it's going to get even more difficult.

SM: So what's to be done?

DP: So, I come at this from the journalism side, which is, journalists are — I hate this term — beleaguered , but they really are. They're under attack. They are accused of being fake. They're accused of making up things. I mean, if you asked people, Republicans and Democrats will tell you differently, but Republicans think the news media make up stories about Donald Trump. They make them up out of whole cloth, thin air.

SM: In part because there are so many stories that are sourced anonymously.

DP: That's true, although it has become somewhat amusing to read the fifth or sixth paragraph in those stories and they'll say, 'this is based on interviews with 20 people.' So they are attempting to say look, we can't name them, but trust me, we didn't just ask one person. But you're right, there's a lot of distrust about that. Lots of journalists I know are just putting their heads down and saying if we just keep doing good work we'll be fine. I don't think so. Personally, I don't think so.

SM: Because it implies that they haven't been, for one thing.

DP: Well, it either implies that or implies that they think trust is a factor only of the work you do. And it's not. Demonstrably so. My sense is that journalists actually have to work to earn the public's trust back. And that's a big project. You can lose trust in a minute and it takes you years to earn it back. Anybody who's lost the trust of a friend, for example, will know this from personal experience. But I think it's doable and I think there are a lot of newsrooms right now as we speak making that effort.

SM: Give me the specifics of what that effort should be. There are certainly newsrooms who are having media panels now trying to explain what they do to the public, saying this is how we put this story together. This is how we know whether it's ready to be published or broadcast et cetera. That's part of it, I assume, but what else?

DP: It is part of it. Sort of telling your own story, like how we do our work, what are qualifications are, all that's important. But I think it can't stand alone because that would then feed into a perception that you in the news media, you're really well educated and smart and stuff and you don't think we are we in the public, right.

SM: Elitist.

DP: Exactly. You're elitist. You're "professional." You tend to be liberal. So I think that there's got to be a bigger effort — that's been underway forever and it just never seems to get there — but, to diversify in newsrooms. That is, I'm not just talking about race and ethnicity but also about culture and background and perspective and political leanings and so forth. Newsrooms tend to be fairly uniform, and so more diversity is good. And there are efforts underway to push that a little farther; being not only willing to explain how you did your work, but being really transparent about it. Which means showing your work, basically. How did we get here. Not having a public panel and sort of touting how great you are at the way you do your journalism. B ut on every story providing the sources that you contacted. Making it very clear where your funding comes from, just as an example, which a lot of the nonprofit news organizations that have popped up in recent years do. They're pretty transparent about where their money comes from. And then being accountable. I mean, one of the reasons that journalists are distrusted is because guess what, they're all human and they make mistakes. And so, being willing to say we goofed, here's how we goofed. Here's how we punish the person who goofed. Here's what we found out and how we fixed our goof. You know, all of that's really important.

SM: Will this be enough, Deborah, to counteract things like the new NRA ad which is incredibly vicious, I would say.

NRA Ad: "We've had enough of the lies, the sanctimony, the arrogance, the hatred, the pettiness, the fake news. We're done with your agenda to undermine voters' will and individual liberty in America. To those who bring bias and propaganda to CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times: Your time is running out."

DP: It is an effective ad trashing the news media, "mainstream news media." I don't know that I have the solution. If I did, you know I'd probably be shouting it from the rooftops rather than just teaching one seminar. But I don't think any one thing is going to solve that kind of problem.

I do think newsrooms need to listen better. Journalists pride themselves on being great listeners. They can do an interview and they can get all the information they need and it will be great. But the truth is, newsrooms are not great listeners. They don't listen to the public as well as they should.

SM: Get defensive sometimes ?

DP: Oh, very defensive. I mean, the minute someone says , 'you haven't covered this,' and you know perfectly well you did, the response is, 'well, you just missed it. Of course we covered that.' Well, that's not the kind of listening that we need to do. And so, I'm very excited by a number of projects that are really aimed at getting bigger ears so that the newsrooms really can listen to the community, not to do a story, but to really understand what's at the base of that. And defensiveness won't get you there, that's for sure.

SM: There's a paradox, isn't there Deborah, that at the same time that there's this huge distrust of the media, at least among some quarters, there's also never been a time where people paid more attention. I mean for me it's the golden age of journalism in some ways because the audience is so interested.

DP: I think some people are interested. I'm pretty sure MTPR's audience is interested. But I will tell you that I think a lot of people are overwhelmed. There is so much information coming at them so fast. I'll quote another one of my very smart students who said it's as if we were watching television with a really bad antenna and we get like static and we get a blurry picture that sometimes comes into focus and then it goes out of focus. They feel completely overwhelmed by this. And these are journalism students who do care about what's going on and want to stay informed. So I think that there is an audience that is clearly more engaged than ever. But there's also a rather large group of people who are just, they can't take it anymore there's so much, and they can't tell things apart and it all begins to get too confusing.

SM: What's your best advice to the average news consumer who is feeling overwhelmed but who does want to be informed and informed in a way that respects them?

DP: Well I'm sitting in a public radio studio, so obviously I would say listen to public radio. But I also think that there's a lot of information available on podcasts now. That is a different way of consuming news. NPR for example has a morning podcast that I listen to every morning called "Up First," and it's the same hosts as their morning radio news program but it has a different flavor so it almost feels a little more intimate, a little more personal. And because it's a podcast I tend to do it with headphones in, so that too makes it more intimate. And there are lots of very good ones that will take you deeper on stories. So for instance, you could listen to the local newscast on your public radio station but then go deeper into stories with say a specialized podcast if you're interested in foreign policy. There are a number of those. Sample them, see what you like and then make it a habit.

SM: One final question. What are you telling your students who want to be journalists in this trying time about what they should most be paying attention to?

DP: Well, there's all the skill that they need to learn. It's not an easy thing to be a good journalist, and they're learning that in various classes. In my class what I hope they're learning is that when they get out into the real world they need both a compass and a backbone. The compass will tell them if they're doing things correctly, if they're being ethical and responsible. And the backbone will give them the ability, I hope, to stand up to pressure, because there's going to be a lot of it.

SM: We have been speaking with Deborah Potter who's the Pollner professor at the University of Montana this spring semester, and a longtime very well respected journalist. And Deborah, what a treat to talk to you about all this because it's a discussion, obviously, I'm interested in, and hopefully our listeners as well. Thank you so much.

DP: Yes, thank you Sally.