Sensitivity is needed to regain the public's trust

Why don’t they trust us? The title of the final session at this week’s Society of Editors conference was a question that put its finger on one of those deep-seated, uncomfortable truths that all journalists have to carry around with them. That the public – the readers and viewers that we spend our working lives courting – hold fast to an image of us as scheming, conniving, spinning, sneering beasts who would happily exchange our souls for a page lead and throw our grandmothers into the bargain for good measure.

It may not be the image we have of ourselves, or of our colleagues, but the unpalatable fact remains that we, along with politicians, always take the bottom two slots when it comes to polls of trustworthy occupations.

The David Kelly affair will only have increased the gap between the third and fourth estate and the rest of the professional world. So what do we do about it? The first step, to borrow from various self-help organisations, is to accept that there is a problem.

Yes, the perception is unfair. Yes, it’s a distortion of an outdated stereotype. Yes, it takes no account of the realities of the job. Nonetheless, it exists, whether you’re a national, regional, newspaper, magazine or broadcast journalist. Get over it.

We could shrug it off with the view that society will always hate having a mirror held up to itself. But a less cynical response surely is to stare a little more closely at our own reflection.

The speakers at that session came up with a number of places to start: don’t promise more than we can deliver; say sorry more often when we make mistakes; try to curb our nasty streak; stop revelling in our readers’ misfortunes; think carefully about the impact that stories and campaigns will have on the community; tone down our self-importance.

The society’s new president, Neil Benson, reinforced the point. Ordinary people, he said, expect us to show a greater degree of courtesy and sensitivity, both in the way we deal with them and in the way we present our content.

And that courtesy and sensitivity needs to run all the way through our organisations, from the reporter doing the death knock to the splash sub writing the headline.

We can all make a difference. And who knows, one day we might even escape the relegation zone when the poll results come in.

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