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Trusted journalism: A final note

This week, I’m retiring from Reuters with equal measures of gratitude and pride, and I want to leave you with a few final thoughts—and one handy equation.  

For the past decade, I’ve been learning each day in a job that has been both daunting and exhilarating. We’ve worked together to keep our journalists safe and healthy at a time of mounting global peril. We’ve endeavored to maintain rigorous standards around the world, and I’ve marveled at your courage and commitment in embracing them. At the same time, I’ve shared your frustration at the extent to which our profession has increasingly been disdained, disparaged, and—worst of all—mistrusted.  

You’ve probably seen this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer: Shockingly, it found that, worldwide, 59% of the public believe journalists intentionally try to mislead people by reporting things they know are false, and that most news organizations are more concerned with supporting a political position than with informing the public. Yes, Reuters is consistently ranked among the most trusted news organizations in the world, and rightly so. But widespread distrust endangers all of us, both as journalists and as citizens.  

Without a societal consensus on basic facts, is it any wonder—to cite the most obvious tragic example—that so many people have died because of so many falsehoods about Covid-19?   I believe there is a way forward, and I’m summing it up as follows:  H + T + O = TJ  

…where H is humility, T is transparency, O is objectivity, and TJ is trusted journalism. All three factors, H, T and O, should be givens in any profession—not to mention in any human relationship. But in journalism, for many reasons, they’re often absent—and can even be controversial.  

That first variable, humility, is not a word often associated with journalists (arrogance and self-importance are used far more frequently). But humility is essential to trust. However earnestly we strive for accuracy, we all know that the first draft of history is often flawed: The wrong person is named as the lead suspect in a terror attack; the wrong number of gunmen are cited in a school shooting; the wrong data are printed on nursing home deaths; the wrong predictions are made about voter behavior. For any single error, there are multiple possible explanations: eyewitness error, polling error, mistaken assumptions, unconscious and conscious bias, active deception, bad timing, bad math. The difficulty of getting the facts right, especially under deadline pressure, should compel us to disclose what we don’t know as willingly as what we do, and to be relentless in updating, refining, or correcting what we report. It’s striking that a poll commissioned by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press showed that correcting mistakes was the single attribute most likely to engender trust in media.  

Next up: Transparency. When I started as a reporter at The Tampa Times in, yikes, 1977, and even years later at The Wall Street Journal, we never deigned to show readers how our work was done. We claimed that revealing how we did what we did—“how the sausage was made,” we loved to say—would endanger our defenses when lawyers came after our sources or our notes. We maintained that all that mattered was what we put on the page, the stuff we had mysteriously but impeccably vetted and then chosen to make public.  

Protecting truly confidential sources is, of course, a basic principle, and I wholeheartedly believe it must remain so. But the long game of trust-building requires as much transparency as possible: News consumers have a right to know as much as they can about a source’s access to the facts, reputation for veracity, political agenda, financial stake, and personal prejudices.  

A commitment to transparency also means sharing as many of our precepts and practices as possible. Reuters took a useful step a few years back by providing a link to the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles—with their call to “integrity, independence, and freedom from bias”—under each article on Reuters.com. And our “backstories” on major topics have illuminated how a story, photo, or video came to be; these have been fascinating as well as trust-building.  

I’m leaving the most essential—and often-debated—factor for last: Objectivity. By this, I mean the sincere, ongoing effort to keep opinions and agendas out of reporting, editing, story placement, headlines, and news judgment. Reuters has an easier job with this than more-local news organizations. When you are committed, as we are, to remaining unbiased in 160-plus countries, taking sides in each venue is not only inappropriate; it’s impractical.  

These days, many of our peers disparage “objective journalism” as dishonest, given the reality that everyone brings their biases and life experiences to their work. While of course no one can be completely objective, that doesn’t mean objectivity isn’t a goal worth pursuing.  

As a reporter and editor, I’ve naturally always had opinions. I was ardently anti-death penalty when covering the Florida execution of John Spenkelink in 1979 and deeply hostile to the “greed is good” zeitgeist of the 1980s as I covered the M&A boom. I’ve objected to, and even become enraged by, a wide array of government policies in a wide range of countries, including my own.  

While recognizing that I have these opinions, I’ve always taken professional pride in putting them aside because the quest for objectivity reaps abundant benefits. Done well, it gives us an agreed-upon set of facts. It fights polarization. It acknowledges that life is full of complexity and that articles of faith aren’t the same as facts. It aims for fairness to sources and subjects. And though our attempts at objectivity are destined to be imperfect, how well has opinionated journalism served us?  

Over the years, I’ve come to think of journalists as service providers for news consumers. People should depend on us to perform a task (news gathering) that they value but aren’t trained to do themselves. Like a dentist. Or a plumber. Or an airline pilot. I don’t care about the political opinions of these professionals, and if we do our jobs well, no one should care about our viewpoints either.  

I have loved my forty-three years in journalism, especially the last decade. I will forever remain in awe of the work you’ve done and that I know you will continue to do. Leading Reuters is a unique responsibility, one that I’ve been honored to have and that I’ve enthusiastically passed on to Reuters brilliant new editor-in-chief, Alessandra Galloni. I know that with Alessandra at the helm, you will continue to tell the world’s most important stories with courage, skill, and integrity. My last request: Keep a certain equation close at hand.  

Humility + Transparency + Objectivity = Trusted Journalism.  
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