Like most Americans, I have been closely watching and reading coverage of the worldwide protests over racial injustice. And I am reminded that, during this time of unrest and dialogue, trusted news organizations and journalists are more important than ever.
Why? Because trusted news organizations give people credible reports of the protests and counter-protests; a framing of the national conversation through fair and accurate reporting and informed editorials; and a platform where elected officials are held accountable for their actions – or inaction. Imagine the state of our country if we only found our news on Facebook where everyone’s crazy uncle shares a conspiracy theory article link from Russia Today or outright falsehoods and where the fact-checking is mostly performative and the leadership can’t be held accountable.
That said, even trusted news organizations are confronting their own issues right now. The New York Times published an editorial that fell short of the standards we have come to expect – and without following their own editorial protocols. Their actions, and reactions, triggered an important discussion about the role of news organizations in airing opposing points of view.
Unfortunately, this speaks to a bigger problem. Across the spectrum of media outlets, less than 40% of people say they trust news most of the time. The top concerns for news consumers are around accuracy and bias. And, unfortunately, the difference between news and opinion is not always clear to many Americans. Historically, editorials were created as a way for newspapers to provide opposing points of view while maintaining objective news operations. Certainly, transparency will help. Because the better that audiences understand the processes by which news is produced, the more confidence they are likely to have in it.
And perhaps this particular situation with Cotton’s editorial signals a shift in what younger generations will come to expect from news organizations when it comes to the presentation of opposing opinions. Just because it’s always been this way doesn’t mean it always will be this way. We need to recognize that the consumption of news and opinion is different. Audience expectations have evolved. And we need to evolve accordingly.
Another critical issue for news consumers, however, is one of seeing themselves accurately reflected in news coverage and in newsrooms. Historically, newsrooms have not appropriately incorporated minorities in the ranks of journalists and executives. This lack of different voices and perspectives has led to blind spots in coverage and, wholesale ignoring of issues important to these communities.
We’ve seen a slew of stories emerge around longstanding issues in media organizations in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Editors and executives have left (or been removed from) their positions and many organizations have pledged to do better. And this is a good thing, because the stakes are high.
Work to do
Some organizations are making a concerted effort to remedy these shortcomings. The aforementioned New York Times, for instance, publishes an annual Diversity and Inclusion Report, where they share “data on the composition of our staff, and provide updates on the steps we’re taking to continue to build on our progress.” The goal is to be fully transparent around the current state of their diversity staffing as well as the efforts they are making to improve. However, there is some debate about whether these kinds of efforts move the needle or just underscore the problem.
But at least we’re talking about the problem. For example, there was a great deal of public debate around the merits of The New York Times’ choice to publish an editorial by Senator Tom Cotton. And the Times’ own justification and internal review were widely shared.
From my perspective, transparency is paramount. Without transparency, we won’t ever have meaningful conversations or realize change. The conversation about racial injustice is profoundly important because Black Americans need to be heard. We all need to listen. And we need fundamental and systemic change. The media plays an essential role in this important issue. So, a frank open discussion of the issues at hand – globally, nationally, locally, and in our own newsrooms – is critical now, more than ever.