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Journalists discuss trust, self-editing, and talking heads

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A panel of three Charlotte journalists discussed trust in the news media in a “Coffee @ Knight” session on October  10, 2018, at Queens’ James L. Knight School of Communication. David Boraks of WFAE, Jane Wester of the Charlotte Observer, and TJ Spry of The Queens Chronicle shared perspectives and answered questions from students, faculty, staff, and community members. Rick Thames, visiting professor of journalism and former executive editor of The Charlotte Observer, moderated the panel. Originally recorded on Facebook Live, the event is archived on YouTube.

Some highlights from the panel:

Rick Thames: As a consumer of news today, you might imagine that a lot of people are somewhat confused about how who to trust and how do they know who to trust. TJ, because you’re in the midst of it now as a student and looking ahead toward journalism, what do you make of the confusion today?

TJ Spry: Part of it is that there is a lot of people growing up during my time who turn to these 24-hour cable news stations. They have commentary mixed in with the news. You’ve got to fill in 24 hours in some way. Therefore they tend to have certain biases and so I think a lot of people see Fox News, CNN, MSNBC.

David Boraks: You have talking heads talking about the news. Most of those people are not reporters. They didn’t do the original reporting that presented this news item in the first place. I think that’s a problem…. The line between what you and I do as reporting journalists and the talking heads, pundits, whatever you want to call them, has blurred so much in people’s minds that they lump us all together.  I think the onus is on us as reporters to just keep doing our jobs and asking questions, digging out stories and presenting them in a straight-ahead fashion.

Jane Wester: One more thing to look for is corrections on stories, which I would argue is actually a good thing. If you’re looking at a news source and you’ve never seen them acknowledge a mistake at the top or bottom of the story, then they’re probably changing things without acknowledging that the story was corrected at this date and time. Which is not great. I think a lot of flagship news organizations, when they first went online, were not really sure how they handle that. It’s so easy to edit and republish. You might be just updating…. I think especially now, they’re trying to be more and more clear about know we got this wrong. We acknowledge it, we’re being clear about how we’re fixing it.

Rick Thames: How do you believe audiences perceive bias in the news, and how has that evolved?

David Boraks: It’s what we’re being told in various news outlets. They accuse one or the other side of being wrong about things. I think that there’s actually an industry now of using this idea that’s there bias in the news to point fingers at people who you either don’t trust or don’t believe. It’s become a  propaganda tool to accuse the news media of being biased about A, B or C  or whatever it is…. People have learned how to do that. They’ve been trained to think of the news world in that way. From my standpoint personally that’s really difficult because I haven’t had to deal with that for most of my career. But that is now a fact of life.

Rick Thames: News now is minute by minute, and sometimes you’re required to post as soon as you learn something. In your work as journalists, are you in a position now to post without anyone needing to read behind you? Do you think it makes you vulnerable to people misunderstanding what you’re trying to say?

Jane Wester: We have to be careful even if an editor is looking at your story and has time to look at your story really closely. [When] you’re tweeting from the scene and no one’s looking, that can be misconstrued. Speaking for myself, I’m trying to explain more about the process…. making really clear that this is what I’ve done so far, and this is what still need to do, and being open about it.

David Boraks: I’ll take a deep breath and look at the photos I have and try to come up with something that captures what I’m seeing. Maybe just that little extra deep breath, which [delays] pushing it out immediately. So I’d like to think I’m editing myself there. I am very conscious of the fact that when you put something out there, it’s out, and you can’t get it back. Having also worked as an editor whose job it is was to ‘hit the button,’ as we used to say in the newsroom. I used to be a slot person on the copy desk at the Observer, and when you hit that button you’re taking responsibility for whatever goes out. I feel like that’s the same impulse and responsibility of somebody who’s doing social media. When you hit that [button] you’ve got to take responsibility for it, and I don’t want to put anything out there that’s inaccurate.

When I do live tweets or do live posts, I lead with Instagram and a photo and automatically update my Facebook with that…. If there’s a series of speakers for example, I will try to make sure that I pick out different points of view or different sides so that somebody couldn’t look at my account and say, well, he’s only telling part of the story. I mean I do feel a responsibility when I do a finished story of making sure that I captured what was there and is brought away. So I think we have a responsibility in that way.

Audience Question: How can journalists protect their jobs and strengthen their credibility?

David Boraks: I grew up in a  newspaper culture. Stuff didn’t just go out there to the public. There was being careful in your reporting, double-checking things,  having it be edited, which Jane [Wester] alludes to. In a lot of newsrooms now, there’s not as many layers of editing as there used to be. In some cases, not any, and that puts the onus back on the journalist himself or herself to really make sure that the information they have is accurate. When I’m done with a story I go back over some of the key things. Luckily I’ve had editors over the years who have put question marks next to facts and things like that.  I guess the easy answer is there’s no substitute for editing and self-editing and checking your own facts.

Jane Wester: People who call themselves journalists are a bigger group than before. Gifts are a really straightforward way to tell what the bar for ethics is…. I’m not allowed to take any little freebies. The idea is that a source can’t come back to you and say, ‘hey, I gave you this, you have to do something positive,’ or something like that. It’s just a little way to protect your credibility.

Background on the panelists

David Boraks reports on energy, politics, transportation, and the environment for WFAE. David has also worked for The Charlotte Observer and founded DavidsonNews.net and CorneliusNews.net. He has also reported for American Banker, The China News in Taipei, The Cambridge Chronicle, and The Hartford Courant. David is the recipient of numerous national fellowships and awards in journalism and community service.

Jane Wester grew up in Charlotte and was editor-in-chief of the Daily Tar Heel at UNC Chapel Hill in 2016-17. She now covers criminal justice and public safety for The Charlotte Observer. The focus of recent stories ranged from deaths at the Mecklenburg County Jail to an effort to make conditions safer for bicyclists  in Charlotte.

TJ Spry, Queens ’19, is former executive editor of The Queens Chronicle. TJ has interned with the Carolina Panthers and with the Offices of Sports Information, Communications and Marketing, and Digital Charlotte at Queens.

Background on the issue

Trump has changed how teens view the news
The Atlantic, 29 Aug. 2018

A Trump effect at journalism schools?
The Washington Post, 16 Sept. 2018

Trump and the Watergate effect
Columbia Journalism Review, Fall 2017

Mary Pitkin is a giver, receiver, volunteer, and digital activist
Charlotte sends 12 to smart cities conference in Philadelphia