Sunday, September 22, 2013

Retaining Audience Trust Means Retaining An Audience

Travis Boswell

In journalism running into conflicts of interest seems to be a recognized "part of the job" for reporters and news gatherers. It's a bullet point in the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, implying that any journalist who wishes to be taken seriously should know about it. So, reading the code of ethics lets journalists know a few things that should be common sense: Never pay for stories, admit to your audience any possible bias in your writing and refuse preferential treatment from sources. Despite all that seemingly common knowledge, it keeps happening.

I wasn't fully familiar with the practice of "checkbook journalism" until reading the article on it by the Columbia Journalism Review. It's a practice that seems obviously wrong to many journalists, but they participate in it. I believe the amount and weight of outside pressures makes people more likely to give in to these morally questionable practices. To put it bluntly, finding money in the journalism field is difficult these days. The number of printed magazines and newspapers is dwindling as the medium is in a transitional period between switching to digital, while still trying to keep print journalism relevant with varying degrees of success. The Sun might not be considered a beacon of thoughtful, award-winning journalism these days, but it is popular and one could probably live comfortably while working there.


The journalists working at The Sun probably felt immense pressure to not only produce a timely story, but one that would sustain the high buyrates of their product. It is understandable why they would pay for a story, but it is not respectable.

The Sun is in a unique position, being a tabloid that is more popular than The Guardian. Their tactics undoubtedly lost them respect in the eyes of other sources, and they may be taken less seriously on important issues in the future. The public opinion of journalism is already at an all-time low, so when you engage in "checkbook journalism," your credibility will not be held for very long.

Conflicts of interest in more serious news sources should be taken even more seriously. Walter Cronkite showing up in a corporate sponsored video was surprising, but he made the right choice by backing out of it quickly. The best way to avoid getting into a conflict of interest like this is to do what all journalists do best: Ask a lot of questions. Question who is sponsoring these projects or videos. If anything seems suspicious, remove yourself from the situation. If removing yourself is impossible, explain the details of your involvement to the audience as much as possible.

I believe part of the reason why journalism has lost a lot of audience trust is because of incidents like this. Reporters and news writers failed to explain their involvement in paid or sponsored arrangements. Today's audience is both smart and picky. They will recognize biased content, or checkbook journalism. This leads to them losing trust in the news source. If the audience doesn't trust a source, there is always another source that they do trust, providing them with the information they seek.

If you want your audience to consume your product, you can't make them feel like they are being lied to or aren't smart enough to understand a story. They won't stick with you very long if they feel like you've taken advantage of their loyalty.

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