Trust depends on the details

“When they notice something sloppy, they tell you so, publicly. And when pollsters come around to ask whether mainstream, nonpartisan journalism is trustworthy, they tell them, too.”

I worked with a newspaper editor earlier in my career, a lovely person who occasionally caused me to sigh deeply. I would work for days or weeks on a story, getting every fact confirmed. Just when I seemingly had reached the home stretch, I’d draw her in the editor pool and the tortuous process would begin.

elizabeth-jensenDid I really mean this word? Or would another word be more precise? Had I considered this nuance? Could I please rewrite this thought to make sure there was no doubt in what I was trying to say? Over and over the copy we’d go, with deadline looming, every sentence seemingly requiring an answer to one of her queries. In my mind, I was focused on the big picture and the work she wanted me to do felt nitpicky.

In the 20 years since, my editor’s kind of careful attention to detail has slowly become less prevalent in daily (can we use that phrase anymore?) journalism. Real-time reporting drives much of our business now: the scoop, the hot take, the analysis, and the next-day speculation. Who has time to parse words in between reporting and tweeting and Facebook Live-ing?

Actually, listeners and readers and viewers do. They are paying attention, perhaps closer attention than ever before to the journalism we are all working as such fast pace to produce. Yes, many news consumers just read the headlines. But they are parsing every word in them, too. When they notice something sloppy, they tell you so, publicly. And when pollsters come around to ask whether mainstream, nonpartisan journalism is trustworthy, they tell them, too.

“Denier” vs. “skeptic.” “Lie” vs. “unfounded.” “Alt-Right” v. “white nationalist.” I sometimes tire of today’s finger-pointing over language and the focus on the labels, which can detract from the big picture, the underlying facts and nuance that will help us, the news consumers, understand the full scope of a story. And yet, those nitpicky words are really at the heart of what the audience wants: precise journalism where every detail has been carefully thought through and held up to a standard.

It’s not terribly sexy, but I hope 2017 is the year when journalism, as it seeks to rebuild trust with some in the audience, puts a renewed emphasis on the fundamentals, despite all the time pressures. When facts will be double-checked. When deep reporting (and openness to new narratives) will wrest back some of the prominence placed on analysis. When news analysts will “show their work,” explaining how they came to their conclusions. When needed corrections will be posted quickly and prominently. When ethics policies and internal standards will be adhered to in every story and interview. When transparency will flourish. And yes, when each and every word will be parsed, as painful as that process might be.

Elizabeth Jensen is NPR’s ombudsman.

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