The Knight Foundation and Aspen Institute convened a group of 27 Americans who have worked for the past 18 months on a special report on trust, media and democracy. I was honored to be a member of this team, which consisted of current and former members of the media, academia, NGOs, government, the arts and business. The context for the report is well known, including the rise of fake news, the declining involvement with mainstream media and loss of trust in our major institutions. Here are the most important recommendations from our task force:
- Online Services to Protect Their Users — We call for platforms to consider themselves “information fiduciaries,” with special responsibilities to protect consumers. This is the equivalent to the pledge taken by professionals such as doctors or lawyers who have access to personal data about clients. There is also a responsibility to address filter bubbles.
- Students to Get Civic Education and Digital Literacy Skills — Citizens in 21st-century America must be able to “access, analyze, evaluate, create and act on digital information.” The goal is by the voting age of 18, an American youth can find and use information that informs his or her vote, no matter what income or neighborhood.
- Radical Transparency — We ask that journalists disclose “the ways they collect, report and disseminate the news…to have news leaders convene and develop best practices promoting transparency.” In particular, news and opinion need to be labelled, and a clear line should be established between news and sponsored content.
- Diversity and Inclusion — We need more diversity in the media. We also should “include other underrepresented groups both geographic and political so that reporting reflects the broader community.”
- Explain the Role of Journalism — The Fourth Estate is a fundamental partner in a functioning democracy but too many citizens now question whether they can count on the information they receive. Joy Meyer of the Trusting News Project said, “Trust happens when people feel they are being heard…when their own lives are reflected in the news coverage…when they have confidence in the decisions, values and ethics taking place in your newsrooms.”
I take great comfort from the finding in the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer that engagement with news and information soared in the past year, from 50 percent to 72 percent. There is a deep desire for quality information in this uncertain time. And yet trust in journalists fell this year, so that they rank only above government officials as a credible source. I love this statement by Walter Williams, dean of the University of Missouri Journalism School in 1914: “I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public.” And it is the job of those of us in public relations to help journalists to get to the truth, because our mutual objective must be the restoration of trust in our democracy.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.