June 3, 2008

Trust and Journalism’s Social Contract

A great irony of media reform is that people decry profit-driven corporations for subverting the Fourth Estate, but also don’t trust the journalists themselves to cover their issues in a meaningful way.

This issue of trust remains a serious hurdle, but change is in the wind.

Bloggers have effectively established a new accountability dynamic between producers and consumers of news.

Now, a new project called Spot.Us, a beneficiary of Knight’s 21st Century News Challenge, could do the same thing on the economic front, by creating a new microfinancing relationship between producers and consumers of news media.

Building Trust
Can this revitalize the social contract of journalism? Perhaps, but it won’t be easy. I did some instant research just now and found on the Think Progress blog the following stats on public trust of news media:

The natural reaction to this — advocacy journalism that serves neglected communities — is good and important. It makes sense, for example, that media reformers would want to create institutions that will represent their particular political issues. They tend to be a civic-minded lot and are out on the frontlines — on the broadcast and cable fronts, anyway — dealing with sloggy issues of regulation and public access.

Nevertheless, the singular push for more politically progressive media that characterizes things such as the National Convention on Media Reform is out of step with the broad-based idea of reform, and in particular is not a solution to journalism’s general retreat in the United States today.

It is demanding of me to say to media reformers — “You just have to trust working journalists” … but that is indeed what I am saying.

More specifically, I want to see journalists empowered to do their job as everyone idealizes it — and give them an opportunity to earn the trust of the communities they serve.

That’s the goal, right? To have a well-financed, principled, demanding, skeptical and diverse news media that brings sunshine to every corner of our democracy?

The Medium is the Means
The Internet, at least as an idealized open-media system, greatly empowers both the “audience” and the “producer.” The relationship is deepened, and the special interests — the publishers, the ideologues, the alphas and the agenda-setters — are disintermediated … or they can be disintermediated, in an open information architecture.

At that point the issue of trust becomes a direct relationship between producer and consumer.

Bloggers blew down the wall of exclusivity that separated the journalism world from the mortal plane, creating revolutionary potential for a new level of accountability.

Now we have to untie the Gordian economic knot. The finances of the journalist-public relationship are currently hypermediated by advertising, by subscription and newsstand mechanisms tied to profit margins, by one-to-one marketing relationships that leverage the online world’s attention economy.

One way to cut through all the knotty layers of mediation is David Cohn’s Spot.Us project. It directly connects individual funders with reporters and news producers, taking a cue from Kiva, the microfinancing program for developing-world entrepreneurs.

[Caveat: Newsdesk.org will be working with Spot.Us to develop financing for coverage of “important but overlooked news.”]

This has the potential to create a new type of feedback loop that will specifically enable community-responsive reporting. If it really takes off at the grassroots, it can create a new cultural relationship of trust and accountability between news media and citizens.

Work hard to empower journalists — and work with them to find solutions. They are yoked to a problematic commercial system, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

They got into the business to do good works for their community and their democracy, and you can help them make it all come true.