So, only 22 percent of Americans trust members of the television news media. It sounds even worse when you do the math and realize 78 percent don't trust us. Here's something even more telling: newspapers rated higher than television... and they do editorials. Their opinions are right out in the open, and people still trust us even less.
First, let's look at how it got this way.
-Bias: Never before has media bias been so in-your-face. When you have some members of the media who don't even try to hide their political affiliation, you've got a trust problem with the public. Sometimes it is just the tone of the person doing the interview; softballs for members of one party, an attack dog attitude for the other. Bias has always existed, but it was a lot more subtle years ago.
-Sensationalism: Average stories are blown way out of proportion. While this has always been true, it's gotten much worse of late.
-One-sided reporting: Too many reporters go out and do one interview per package, never stopping to even consider another side of the story.
-Out of context editing: I can take just about any political speech and make someone look like a saint or the devil with a few simple cuts.
-Lack of class: How can you trust anyone who shoves a microphone in someone's face after a tragedy?
-The Internet has revealed all of our old tricks: The public is now well versed in ratings, editing tricks, journalistic principles or lack thereof, and how reporters actually gather facts. People can see entire speeches and decide for themselves what a politician actually meant. They can look up anyone's background. And they no longer take one news organization's word for anything.
The Japanese have a saying. "Fix the problem, not the blame." That said, here's how you can do your small part to make television news trustworthy again.
-Check your opinions at the door. You may be a bleeding heart liberal or a Bible-thumping conservative, but the public doesn't need to know it from your actions or your words. Keep your personal views to yourself and put stories together in a fair manner. Give each side equal time. Make sure your b-roll doesn't cast either side in a bad light. Let the viewers decide for themselves how they feel about a story.
Remember, people who disagree with you are not stupid just because they don't share your views. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Except media people have to keep theirs under wraps. People who watch your stories on a regular basis should have absolutely no clue where you stand on issues or what your political affiliation might be.
-Be professional, especially in the field. A few years ago I was on a network story covering a tragedy. Several people had been killed in a senseless crime, most of whom were members of a particular church. I walked into the church without a camera and asked the priest if he wanted to comment. I'll never forget what he said. "I can't believe you actually offered me the chance to say no." Others had apparently been shoving cameras in his face.
The next day a family member actually drove to our satellite truck and invited us to come by for a news conference. When we arrived, several other news organizations weren't even there.
Did they trust us simply because word got around that we were polite and didn't use ambush journalism? You make the call.
-Treat all people you interview equally. The dirty mechanic covered with grease deserves the same respect as the man in the thousand dollar suit. They're equal. The mechanic might even be a lot smarter than the guy in the suit. (Hence the term "empty suit.") Keep this in mind: both have one vote on election day. Both count the same in the ratings book.
-Stop airing stories that are in bad taste. Here's the great indicator: if you wouldn't want your mother to see your story, it's outta here. Either that, or fix it so she could watch it. Also, it's time for the all-time most effective tease ("You may find our next story disturbing") to be retired. If it's disturbing, it doesn't need to air.
-Look for more positive stories. The most common complaint I hear from viewers is that local news is all bad, all death and destruction. Would you want to listen to someone everyday who told depressing stories? Well, that's what the viewer is getting.
Bottom line, ethics, class and professionalism start with you.