In order to maintain journalistic credibility, getting the story right is more important than waging a crusade.
That’s a fair conclusion from a report published this week by The Columbia Journalism Review dissecting the so-called Russiagate saga, during which former President Donald Trump was accused of colluding with Russian officials to win the 2016 election. While covering the story, many journalists went well beyond their traditional role of studying powerful officials and not only openly chose sides in America’s escalating political war, but devoted themselves to proving a literal conspiracy theory true, regardless of the evidence. It didn’t go well.
“The end of the long investigation into whether Donald Trump colluded with Russia came in July 2019, when Robert Mueller III, the special counsel, took seven, sometimes painful, hours to actually say no,” former The New York Times writes reporter Jeff Gerth at the beginning of his detailed analysis. His old employer was at the center of the frenzy, and his editors continue to defend their efforts, he adds. “But outside times‘ own bubble, damage to credibility times and his colleagues persist, three years later, and are likely to take on new energy as the nation faces another election season animated by antagonism toward the press. At the root was an undeclared war between the entrenched media and a new breed of disruptive presidency, with its own hyperbolic version of the truth.”
The whole article is worth reading, but make yourself a pot of coffee or open a bottle of wine – it’s long. Nobody looks particularly good. That’s true of the former president, though the flaws he reveals in Trump are nothing new to anyone who has watched him and his ego on the national stage. It’s also true of the FBI agents who teamed up with too many reporters to whip each other up in the hope of the Steele dossier and his claims that Trump is Putin’s puppet. And this especially applies to those members of the press who lost credibility by committing to a story that failed.
“Prior to the 2016 election, a majority of Americans trusted traditional media and the trend was positive, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer,” notes Gerth. “Today, the American media has the lowest credibility — 26 percent — among forty-six countries, according to a 2022 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.”
That Reuters study is repeated by other studies that show minimal trust in the media. But mistrust is unevenly spread.
“Americans’ trust in the media remains sharply polarized along party lines, with 70 percent of Democrats, 14 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of independents saying they have a great deal or a fair amount of trust,” according to an October 2022 Gallup poll.
This division is explained by the public perception that the media is not only biased, but that it pushes an agenda regardless of fairness. Americans “suspect that inaccuracies in reporting are purposeful, with 52 percent believing that reporters are misrepresenting the facts and 28 percent believing that reporters are completely making them up,” a 2020 Gallup/Knight poll found.
Journalistic shenanigans like the Russiagate debacle can only feed such concerns.
Strictly speaking, there is nothing wrong with journalists having their point of view, as long as they are open about it and emphasize that the story is correct. Right now you are reading a libertarian publication; we do our best to limit our beliefs to an interpretation of facts that exist independently of our preferences. The partisan press is well entrenched in American history, from the newspapers that gleefully tortured the first presidents to the Republican and Socialist newspapers that made my grandparents scream at each other. Efforts at “objectivity” in news reporting—however successful—didn’t really become the norm until after World War II. And that’s likely a passing norm as journalists once again embrace bias and find (or not) an audience that supports them.
“Slightly more than half of the surveyed journalists (55 percent) say that every side does it not always deserve equal coverage in the news,” Pew Research reported last summer. “In contrast, 22 percent of Americans overall say the same, while about three-quarters (76 percent) say journalists you should always try to give all parties equal coverage.”
“Beyond Objectivity: Producing Trustworthy News in Today’s Newsrooms,” published last week by the Knight-Cronkite News Lab, found that “a growing number of journalists of color and younger white journalists, including LGBTQ+ people, believe that objectivity is increasingly outdated and the concept divisive that prevents truly accurate reporting based on one’s own background, experiences and viewpoints.” By Leonard Downie Jr., former member of The The Washington Post, and Arizona State University journalism professor Andrew Heyward wisely recommend that post-objective newsrooms should be open with their staff and the public about their core beliefs. But, worryingly, they also suggest that newsroom managers should “move beyond accuracy to truth”.
It’s really hard to get any truth if you bypass accuracy.
“My main conclusion is that the primary missions of journalism, informing the public and calling powerful interests to account, are undermined by the erosion of journalistic norms and the lack of transparency of the media itself about its work,” Gerth writes in the afterword to his Russiagate autopsy. . “One traditional journalistic standard that has not always been followed in reporting on Trump and Russia is the need to report facts that contradict the prevailing narrative.”
If more journalists following the Russiagate story had been scrupulous about getting the facts right, they might have noticed that the story that many wanted to be true was extremely thin and, ultimately, inaccurate. The failure to exercise due diligence did the media no favors when the facts finally emerged and further eroded public confidence.
Gerth calls on his colleagues to recommit to “transparent, unbiased and accountable media” to regain trust and an audience that is increasingly divided along party lines. “Unbiased” is probably a big ask given the preferences of the journalists themselves. It is not even obvious that it ever existed; the media giants that dominated for several decades were probably more monolithic in their newsroom ideologies than they were truly neutral. But transparency and responsibility should be expected from journalists who should speak openly about their methods and strive for stories, not results.
In the end, no matter what ideologies or goals motivate journalists, no one will believe us if we fail to get the story right.