America has a vital interest in good journalism. But journalism confronts serious challenges. The advertising-based business model that supported it for more than a century has been disrupted. More than 1,800 U.S. newspapers have closed in the past 15 years — mostly weeklies, but also 75 dailies. Many surviving midsize metropolitan newspapers are shadows of what they once were. They have significantly reduced their news staffs and pages.
Yet journalism faces another serious challenge: a loss of public trust. A recent Gallup poll shows that of 15 American institutions, newspapers and television news are both near the bottom in the public’s confidence. While news organizations claim they are fair and objective, and many try hard to be, Americans perceive widespread bias in news reporting.
Two years ago I heard a prominent journalist say she doesn’t believe in the “false equivalency” of presenting both sides, and that she sees her job as determining the truth, then sharing it with her audience. That’s not what I learned in journalism school in the 1960s.
I decided then that I needed to let our readers know that we didn’t agree with those statements. I also needed to let them know what journalistic principles we do endorse. So I drafted a statement of core values. For the past two years, every day we publish this statement on page 2 of all 10 daily newspapers our company publishes, including the flagship Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
During the 19th century, few news organizations existed other than newspapers. Generally they were highly partisan. Around the turn of the century most newspaper publishers came to believe they could get more readers by being fair and objective. When radio and television came along, they pursued the same goals.
But with the internet it was a different story. It is full of not only one-sided information, but plenty of disinformation. So far in the 21st century, we seem to be reverting to 19th-century ideas about news and partisanship. While cable-news networks have all done good journalism, they also feature highly opinionated commentators and shows. The problem is that there isn’t a sharp delineation between news and opinion, creating the perception that CNN, MSNBC and Fox News each have their own agenda. If community journalism in America doesn’t survive its economic challenges and we end up with three national newspapers, it is important that the public’s perception of those newspapers not mirror their perception of the cable networks.
The solution is for reporters, editors and news executives to look inward, and not only to recommit ourselves to being fair, objective and impartial in our reporting, but to convince the public we are doing it. We also need to separate and clearly label news and opinion.
The best way to do it is through transparency — by publicly stating our core values. But we need to do more. Journalism schools need to adopt similar statement of core journalistic values. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s journalism school, one of the best in the nation, has decided to do that with an announcement Tuesday. We believe in this so strongly that our family, which has been in the newspaper business 110 years, has made its largest donation ever and is lending our name to the school.
My hope is that more journalism schools, and more news organizations, will adopt a similar statement of core values so the public can hold us accountable to our principles. This offers the best hope for re-establishing Americans’ trust in journalism.
Our core values
Impartiality means reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without opinion or bias.
Credibility is the greatest asset of any news medium, and impartiality is the greatest source of credibility.
To provide the most complete report, a news organization must not just cover the news, but uncover it. It must follow the story wherever it leads, regardless of any preconceived ideas on what might be most newsworthy.
The pursuit of truth is a noble goal of journalism. But the truth is not always apparent or known immediately. Journalists’ role is therefore not to determine what they believe at that time to be the truth and reveal only that to their readers, but rather to report as completely and impartially as possible all verifiable facts so that readers can, based on their own knowledge and experience, determine what they believe to be the truth.
When a newspaper delivers both news and opinions, the impartiality and credibility of the news organization can be questioned. To minimize this as much as possible there needs to be a sharp and clear distinction between news and opinion, both to those providing and consuming the news.
“A newspaper has five constituencies, including first its readers, then advertisers, then employees, then creditors, then shareholders. As long as the newspaper keeps those constituencies in that order, especially its readers first, all constituencies will be well served.” — Walter Hussman, 1906-88
Mr. Hussman is publisher of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.