Walter E. Hussman Jr. Gives MPJI Lecture on “Restoring Public Trust in the News”
On April 13, the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College hosted Walter E. Hussman Jr. for a lecture on “Restoring Public Trust in the News.”
On April 13, the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College hosted Walter E. Hussman Jr. for their 8th annual John McCandlish Phillips Lecture. Hussman spoke to an audience of students, faculty, and guests on the topic of “Restoring Public Trust in the News.”
Walter E. Hussman Jr. is a third-generation newspaper publisher who has guided the successful editorial and entrepreneurial strategy of his company. He serves as the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is president and CEO of WEHCO Media, Inc. in Little Rock, Arkansas, which owns dozens of newspapers, magazines, broadcast stations, and other media-related entities.
Paul Glader, the director of the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute, began the program by reminding the audience of the lecture series namesake, John McCandlish Phillips, an outstanding reporter at the New York Times for more than two decades. He was an exemplar of what it meant to be a great reporter, mentor, and person of faith.
After an introduction by Prof. Glader, Hussman gave his lecture on how to restore public trust in the news. He began his talk by stating that there’s a serious problem in journalism in America: people have a lack of trust in news reporting. The public perceives a lack of fairness in news reporting and believes that many news reporters and organizations are biased in their coverage of the news. Hussman said that news organizations have contributed to this lack of trust in their reporting by blurring the lines between what is opinion and what is news. They no longer clearly label what reports are opinions and what reports are news.
To demonstrate this lack of public trust in news reporting, Hussman showed statistics from a recent Gallup poll on the news media. The results of the poll showed that trust in the news media has dropped significantly over the last forty years, plummeting to 23%. This level of trust is much lower than many other American institutions and is only slightly higher than the level of confidence in the U.S. Congress. The survey also showed that 86% of Americans saw bias in news reporting and that 73% believed that bias is a major problem in news reporting. Fifty-four percent of Americans surveyed believe that the bias is intentional and that reporters are misrepresenting or making up facts. Compared to every other country in the world, the United States has the lowest trust in its news media.
So why have Americans lost so much trust in their news media organizations? According to Hussman, a key reason is that media companies like Fox News and MSNBC have targeted niche markets and realized that they could save money by focusing on opinion shows rather than news shows. It’s far less expensive to have opinion shows instead of news reporting.
Another reason that Americans have lost trust in the news is that they can no longer know if something is accurate or not. The opinion-based approach to the news causes media companies to report things before they can be verified for truth, since they are more focused on speed than accuracy. Many news companies are more interested in being first with the story rather than ensuring total truth and accuracy of the facts, causing the public to lose trust in their reporting.
A third reason that Hussman gave for the declining trust in American news is the introduction of the internet and social media. When the internet went mainstream, newspapers began to deliver their news on the internet in the same way as everyone else, through scrolling websites. Since any author could create a scrolling website, it blurred the information between accurate and inaccurate news, making it unclear whether the information was real or fake. Then, with the advent of social media, news became mixed with personal content, oftentimes through anonymous accounts, leading to increased vitriol and an even greater breakdown of trust among the general public for the news media.
So what’s the solution to this problem? How can trust be restored in American news media? Hussman recalled a moment when he turned on the TV to get the daily news while on vacation in another country. As he watched the news, a prominent journalist shared that she didn’t believe in the false equivalency of giving booths sides. The journalist went on to explain her job wasn’t to report both sides of the story, but rather to determine the truth herself and then reveal that to viewers.
Hussman was taken aback by this statement. Her viewpoint went against everything that Hussman had learned in journalism 101 and believed in as the editor of a major newspaper. He believes that you always need to give both sides of the story. Why? “Because truth is elusive, deceptive, and sometimes reveals itself not immediately, but only after a period of time,” he said. “So I believe that until the truth is completely verified, it’s better to give readers facts.”
After he returned home from his trip, he wanted to share his company’s journalistic values with his readers so that they would know Hussman’s commitment to presenting the truth to his readers. So he drafted seven core values that could be easily read and then committed to publishing them every day on page 2 of every single one of their daily newspapers. His seven core values of news journalism are:
- “To give the news impartially, without fear or favor.” (Adolph Ochs, American newspaper publisher and owner of the New York Times, 1858-1935)
- Impartiality means reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without personal 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. A journalist’s 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, 1906-1988)
When Hussman shared these core values with his news media colleagues from around the country, he received an enthusiastic response. His newspaper readers also universally praised the core values and appreciated knowing where his newspapers stood on reporting the news.
As Hussman explained these seven core values for news media organizations, he shared that journalists should not be influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, and biases as they report the news, but rather should do their best to give their readers the facts. Many journalists have attacked the idea of objectivity, believing that no one can be completely objective. But Hussman challenged this notion, that just because we can’t be 100% objective that doesn’t mean we should strive to be as objective as possible. He said, “That’s like saying that since no one is completely virtuous, we shouldn’t try to be virtuous.” To Hussman, objectivity isn’t a state of mind, but rather a goal to pursue. Good journalists receive new ideas with an open mind, rather than adhering to a narrative that may or may not be true.
Hussman admits that it’s human nature to want people to agree with us and to think like us, which makes these core values so important since they serve as guardrails for journalists and news reporting. “Of course, it would seem tempting to write a news story to convince others to our way of thinking, but that’s the very reason reporters need to resist these normal human instincts in order to tell the story as straight as possible, to keep our emotions, prejudices, and politics out of covering the news. These core values of journalism help us to do just that,” Hussman said. “My hope is that more journalism schools and news organizations will embrace these time-tested principles in journalism so that we can begin to regain the trust of the American people.”
Mindy Huspen, a sophomore majoring in journalism, was encouraged by Hussman’s lecture. “His emphasis on objectivity was really heartening for me to hear, especially since so many people I know, whenever I mention I’m going into journalism, are very cynical about it,” Huspen said. “Knowing that there are still influential people within the journalism world that are striving for objectivity and striving for success as a paper and seeing that succeed and not die to the upcoming business model of opinion journalism and partisan politics was very encouraging.”
Due to flight cancellations because of severe weather in the Arkansas area, Mr. Hussman was not able to speak in-person. To learn more about the work and events of the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College, please click here.