On seeking trust in public media

Public media consultant Michael Marcotte posted about some of his recent work on ethics guidelines for public media employees and I was moved to comment. I started commenting directly on his blog, but realized — after 700 words — that I should really post this on my site and link over to it. No need to gunk up his comments.

Be sure to check out the source post — Ethics Guidelines for Public Media Employees — and related documents first. Got it? Then here are my comments.

I’m glad someone is thinking about this in the public media world, but I’m disappointed that traditional journalists got their hands so deeply into this document.

We don’t need a replication of existing “view from nowhere” positioning in journalism. We need fairness and disclosure, yes, but objectivity is not increasing public trust. NPR maintained traditional objectivity right through the right-wing attacks of the last few years and it neither illuminated those situation nor generated more trust in any corner. Objectivity-worship sucked the teachable moment right out of those manufactured controversies.

I could go on for a long time about the perils of objectivity, but Jay Rosen has that waterfront covered, so just read his stuff. Instead, I’ll focus on the real flaw I see at the heart of this document.

It’s related to the objectivity thing, but it’s much simpler. It’s right there in the Principles at the top of the list: “Seek public trust“. Three simple words.

  • Trust is good. We all want that. We need it. It makes the mission of public media organizations easier and more supportable. Trust is an unvarnished good.
  • Public is a pretty good word. I think we’ve lost touch with that word through its overuse; we don’t know what it means anymore. Does “public” mean upper-middle-class college whites? It certainly seems that way in public media. But let’s leave that old argument aside and assume the best around the word “public.”
  • Here’s the problem: “Seek“. You’re telling people to seek public trust. You’re advising that people angle for it, grasp for it, hope for it. By choosing the word “seek” you’re admitting that public media organizations must position themselves, marketing-style, as being trustworthy. They don’t have to BE trustworthy, they just have to seek the perception of trustworthiness. (It’s time to post more “PBS is #1 in public trust” press releases!)

When it comes to social media and real life — and I would argue when it comes to news — you either are trustworthy or you are not. You earn trust. You have trust. You can lose trust. But you don’t seek it. You don’t plan for it. “Seeking” to me sounds like someone who’s trying too hard to be my friend. It feels contrived. And contrivances are not trustworthy.

Those three words — “Seek public trust” — flow from a major problem public media organizations (and newspapers) face today: a collection of older executives that are working to protect an anachronistic empire, managers who’ve inherited a system that has a lot of trust built up from 30+ years of valuable public service, most of which was built before their time. They’re seeking public trust because they’re trying to preserve their own income and status.

Early public media leaders didn’t seek public trust. They just did trustworthy things. They were trustworthy people. Trust adhered to them over time based on the things they did. It wasn’t the color of their logos, it was the content of their characters that made a difference. Do you think Fred Rogers sought public trust? He schemed for it?

To take an unrelated example, look at Apple. Apple has tremendous levels of trust built up with millions of customers. They have a brand with worldwide respect. They’re the best at customer service. They have unparalleled product quality, design, and ease of use. People love Apple. Dis Apple “seek public trust” to get where they are? Did they market their trustworthiness? Or do they instead earn their trust with each well-executed product, each simple service, each box opening? Go look at the last 10 years of Steve Jobs’ presentations. Did he ever talk about trust? No. But he and the company earned it billions of times over.

In the case of social media, public media organizations should ask their employees to be trustworthy, be nice, deal in truth, share the spotlight, and promote — at least some of the time — a better world.

The long list of ethics rules should really be shortened to look like this:

  • Be trustworthy (e.g. think before you post, respect privacy, practice transparency, strive for accuracy and truthfulness, use your “real” voice, be nice, share)
  • Either maintain a healthy congruency between personal and professional behavior or at least recognize that your capacity for maintaining separate personal and private lives is inversely proportional to how public your professional position is
  • Keep in mind your public associations, even fleeting ones, may affect whether others are willing to trust you, so associate carefully for positive and negative returns

And that’s it.

The extra rules in the proposed document are designed for managers of an earlier era. I understand why they’re there. They’re all part of “seeking public trust” through manufactured objectivity and too-earnest striving for legitimacy. Which is a losing game in the long run.

Public media actors should be trustworthy, and let the rest take care of itself.

One thought on “On seeking trust in public media

  1. Just asked Michael if he knows the median age of the panel that came up with these recommendations. My guess is that it’s about what one would expect. That is to say, this document represents one particular point of view, and that’s a shame. It’s worthwhile to have these discussions, but perhaps the process could have been more useful with a few new faces at the table instead of just the usual suspects.

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