71 percent of journalists and influencers think the public has lost trust in them, according to the recently released 2018 Global State of the Media Report. While troubling, it’s not surprising. Fake news, poor reporting practices and extremist groups masquerading as media outlets all contribute to an industry that struggles to define for the public what is true and accurate and what is not.
But it’s not all bad. Journalists who feel they’ve lost trust has decreased from 91 percent in 2017, which means that fewer feel they are losing ground with the public. Why the change?
Journalists Are Being Publicly Attacked
Perhaps the constant attacks on the media industry have made people pay more attention to what journalists do and the value they provide. For example, President Trump recently questioned the credibility of a well-known, trusted media outlet:
And a few days later, he attacked a reporter from The New York Times with a potentially libelous statement in order to undercut the journalist’s investigative reporting and deflect attention from the true news story.
So, what makes these statements dangerous and why does it matter if the president actively works to undercut the integrity of media institutions and the journalists who work for them?
It means the very essence of journalistic integrity and the concept of “free press” is in danger.
The recent news segment “Why Do Journalists Keep Falling?” that documents a series of suspicious deaths of Russian journalists sent chills down my spine. Scott Simon of NPR reports, "Journalism is a dangerous trade in Russia. At least 35 Russian journalists have been murdered since 2000 ... a surprising number have implausibly fallen or slipped to their deaths."
The dangers that journalists face increase when government and society fail to support them, or actively work to undermine them. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 169 journalists and media workers were killed in the last two years alone, many by murder. The actual figure is likely higher.
Source: Committee to Protect Journalists
Freedom of the press is a myth in countries that oppress free speech. The truth is that journalism is a dangerous job, and reporters sometimes risk it all to bring the public stories that need to be told. American journalist Theo Padnos wrote about his kidnapping and subsequent captivity in Syria remarking, “It seemed to me that I might someday be released or I might someday be shot, but that I had no power to affect my fate.”
It is easy to say that this sort of thing can happen in places where governments and people fight for stability and safety. But what about here, in the U.S.? The First Amendment protects the American media and our people with the laws we’ve made to govern ourselves.
But what is the power of a law if there is no government support to uphold it, or will of the people to stand by it? Playing it safe by not taking a stand can seem like the easy path for brands to take. But is it the right choice?
According to a recent study, two-thirds of consumers (66 percent) say it’s important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues. While each company needs to make their own choice, one thing we can all agree on is that business growth and prosperity necessitates a free press. It is certainly in brands’ best commercial interests to operate in a free and fair society.
Free Markets and Business Growth Demands a Free Press
Without a free press, there will be no avenue for brands to tell their story. Capitalism fettered by democracy demands that truths be told, even if they make us (or whatever political party is in power) uncomfortable. This is good for business and good for our country. That's why it's more important now than ever for brands to do their part, to be ethical in their relationships with journalists and for them to support free press around the world.
The media attention that companies get can be positive or negative. Sometimes news stories make the public uncomfortable. Often the news can be raw and eye-opening and has the power to change the course of industry and the world. And that’s ok. That is how it must be. For without the ability to see the unrestrained and uncensored truth, we are not free.
We as humans hold journalists to a higher standard. Members of the media put their lives on the line every day so that they may reveal dangerous and evolving world affairs in real-time. And we don’t need to look very far to see the risks they take in order to get the truth out.
Brands Will Always Rely on Journalists
By supporting the press through ethical PR practices, making sure they always have honest and accurate stories to tell, by upholding ethical standards in all that they do, comms professionals can help ensure that the American dream and the laws that govern it stay in place permanently.
A free, objective press is critical for society; it enables the press to call it like they see it. Brand success relies heavily on the merit-based earned media that journalists provide, as consumers trust paid media less and less.
The media need high-quality content from brands so they can write better news stories. Journalists cited press releases as their #1 most valuable PR resource for the third year in a row, and their #1 most trusted resource as well, as noted in the 2018 Global State of the Media Report.
Journalists also trust press release distribution providers that vet companies and adhere to editorial standards that prohibit libelous materials. They also rely on finding sources through free services like Help a Reporter Out (HARO). But brands must also do their part by providing newsworthy elements, doing legwork for journalists and using trusted distribution services rather than just relying on social media alone to tell their story.
Comms professionals must also focus on relationship-building rather than spamming journalists with valueless promotional messages, which makes it harder for the media to do their jobs. PR pros have a duty to be respectful of journalists' time, and not to mislead them or to take advantage of them.
Without honest and aboveboard relationships between the press and the companies they report on, there is no brand story. That’s why it’s critical for companies to enable journalists by providing accurate, compelling content, every single time.
Brands Can Tell Good Stories, But They Must Be True
Brands must stand alongside journalists by supporting them with honest, original and human content. Companies need to get emotional. When brands “create a compelling, fact-based emotional story that not only evokes an emotional response but also satisfies the brain’s need for verifiable research,” companies are helping journalists and the media tell a true, authentic story that drives the audience forward, that ignites passions and spurs people into action.
Brands, in a sense, have become people too. That means that although their opportunities to participate in civil discourse and campaigns have never been greater, they also must hold themselves to a higher standard — just as individuals strive to do.
We must be ethical with headlines by avoiding clickbait, with content by being honest and original, and most of all we must have a conscience and a written code of conduct to follow in the form of editorial standards and content guidelines. Companies can also take actionable steps when creating content to avoid the fake news label themselves so that when they communicate with the press and the public, their message comes across clearly and honestly.
When censorship and fear are used to stamp out press freedom, this is dangerous for all of us. Fact-based reporting becomes dangerous. When baseless claims and personal opinions replace a trustworthy and free press, then that can prohibit the truth from reaching the public and an uninformed public inhibits the health and free-exercise of democracy.
Thomas Jefferson said, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." He is right. We have an obligation to always hold truth in the highest regard and to always strive for it, in everything we do, and build it into the very foundations of our brand strategies.
We must stand up for journalists everywhere, so that we may continue to live in a society that values truth, even if that truth makes people uncomfortable.
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