Wanted for journalism: real people

Three years ago, I was a part of a research project in the Northwest that included discussions with young people who didn’t participate in the local news scene. Jay Rosen would call them “the people formerly known as the audience.” In one question, we asked people 18–49 to agree or disagree with this statement: “I don’t mind reporters with a bias, as long as they’re honest in telling me what it is.” Nearly six in ten agreed with the statement, and that seemed to surprise everybody.

The response isn’t surprising, however, from a postmodern worldview, because pomos tend to make decisions of trust based on their own experiences, so the concept of “objectivity” is seen as poppycock. There is no such thing as a lack of bias. From a larger perspective, the mistrust of institutional power is based in a fundamental belief that such institutions exist first to serve themselves, and claims that justify a special position within the culture are viewed as disingenuous, to be kind.

So it’s not surprising to find similar thoughts expressed in a new study by the Associated Press Managing Editors group and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. The Online Journalism Credibility Study found an unfamiliar disconnect between journalists and consumers.

Some 70 percent of editors surveyed said requiring commenters to disclose their identities would support good journalism, while only 45 percent of the public did. Similarly, 58 percent of editors said letting journalists join online conversations and give personal views would harm journalism, but only 36 percent of the public agreed.

Expressions of personal views seem to help boost readers’ interest and trust in Web sites, said John ‘Bart” Bartosek, editor of The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, Fla., and chairman of the credibility committee for the AP managing editors group.

“That’s contrary to most of the traditions we’ve all grown up with, to keep our opinions, viewpoints and personal lives out of our story,” Bartosek said. “There’s some indication that readers are looking for something more online. Whether it’s information about our expertise, our knowledge, our background, I’m not really sure.”

People want to trust journalists, but it’s hard to trust somebody whose best argument is “just trust me.” The more we try to separate ourselves from the people formerly known as the audience, the harder it’s going to be to build credibility. Journalists are people, too, although many certainly don’t act like it.

The message from the people is pretty clear: just be real.

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