Karen Stephenson is an anthropologist at Harvard University and a scholar in the field of trust. Her research focuses on how the issue of trust affects institutions such as news organizations. Stephenson appeared as a member of a panel at the May 2005 Nieman Reunion whose task was to speak to the challenges journalists confront today. The panel was moderated by Alex Jones, who is director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Edited excerpts from this discussion follow.

Alex Jones: Karen Stephenson, your area of study is trust, and that is something that we in the media have been perplexed by for quite a long time because our credibility is something that seems to be on the decline. And yet we don’t seem to be able to either do much about it or to even understand quite what’s going on. What is the chemistry of trust, and how does it apply to news organizations?

Karen Stephenson: Thank you for asking that question. I’ve always said that journalists are like anthropologists, only they write a hell of a lot better. I’ve been very perplexed by what I’ve been seeing, the change in the You really have to have a receiving audience or a consumer who is a critical thinker or who demands this kind of analysis. And if people grow lazy and
don’t want to think, then you’re right: The people who are weak and who won’t do real analysis, who will just have the appearance, will win the day.
industry, both nationally in the United States as well as globally. The use and abuse of trust and people not understanding it very well are notions of conflict of interest. Even though there are laws and legislation in this country and in others, I’m not sure they really understand that either. And we have lots of examples about how trust has been abused.

So we can have the laws, and we can have notions of fair and balanced reporting, but we can just walk right over those. That’s what I want to talk about, because that’s a challenge to credibility. I look at trust at basically three levels—the individual, corporate and community levels. And I look across the world at journalists and try to wonder what their standards are. How are they professionalized? Do they just become journalists by excellent writing and by being hired? What are the standards of professionalization?

Now all of you have something to say about that, but let’s be frank. There are different standards all around the world. For people to have trust in this profession, to whom do they look for various standards, for professionalization, of the journalistic craft? That’s one thing. I think it’s a slippery slope. So when you look at what Fox News is doing, going from analysis to opinion, I think people are entitled to opinion, but they need to do their fair due about critical analysis and critical thinking. In many instances, we are seeing a shortcut where people bypass analysis and go straight to opinion.

The second level is at the corporate level. This touches upon the news media and the organizations dealing with corporate trust. How can you expect someone to go forth out into a field where there might be great danger, for them to go forward when they have to watch their back? If they feel that they don’t have a family that supports them and that they can go forward, then I think that compromises individual journalist’s ability to be able to fairly, honestly and analytically report on what they’re seeing.

I’m not pointing the finger of blame to executives who have to conduct layoffs and other more slash-and-burn management techniques. I understand that there are shareholders to report to and there is profit to be made. But we all know that when you slice and cut off heads that that is probably the least effective way of doing things. And I would make an argument for leaders of these news media that there are other alternatives. But often when the platform that you’re standing on is burning, you do what is expeditious. And that is an expeditious technique. But I think that when layoffs occur and trust is betrayed of the people who are working for you, then it compromises their ability to be able to go out and fairly and honestly report. I think that is an outcome we’re dealing with now.

Finally, the third thing is really about community trust, about our global community. That stretches beyond the organizations and beyond national boundaries. And here it is very interesting to look at the role of bloggers. In my interviews with them, I find that this rise is very interesting—some have called it a democratization, but I think they are the canaries in the mineshaft, and they are telling us something that’s going on in the industry.

Not that it’s a demise at all; in fact, I don’t think so. Quite the contrary, I think it’s in the middle of a sea change. But where it goes depends upon our ability to work together, to demand accountability, to uphold standards of trust, and to build back that credibility. So I’m very curious as to what will happen in the next couple of years.

I do think that media and particularly television really uses and abuses trust. Because as an anthropologist, I can tell you that the oldest, the most old-fashioned way of forming trust is face-to-face contact, whether it’s in a room like we have today, or whether in a virtual way it’s across a television screen. Because the oldest form of forming trust is the primordial form of forming trust, which is you look like me, you think like me, you walk and talk like I do, you have the secret handshake, you’re a part of my network. And the converse of that is you don’t look like me, you don’t think like me, you don’t walk and talk like I do, you’re not a part of my network.

And so being able to go from you don’t look like me, you don’t think like me, you don’t walk and talk like I do, but I want to know you because I’m going to learn something new, is an appreciation and a full understanding of diversity—not the political little “d” diversity, but the big “D” of diversity. And I think that the ability to do that rests with just a very few people, mature adults, and the number that I know I could count on one hand. So there’s room for improvement.

Jones: That’s a frightening kind of prospect. Let me ask you a follow-up question. Most people associated with news organizations live by the code that not only can there not be a conflict of interest, but there must not be the appearance of a conflict of interest. The appearance of a conflict of interest is now something that can almost be manufactured at will, especially with blogging and the kind of politicized environment that we’re in in terms of news coverage and criticism of people who don’t agree with your reporting, with what you have said as a journalist in some fashion. Is this environment one that makes it almost impossible for people to have confidence in information that does not comport with what they already believe? Because there are almost certainly going to be efforts made to undermine the credibility and that is the thing that is going to carry the day.

Stephenson: I think that’s a well-placed question and comment because I think it really is a dilemma. When you get into appearances, then you’re sliding down another slippery slope called political correctness. You really have to have a receiving audience or a consumer who is a critical thinker or who demands this kind of analysis. And if people grow lazy and don’t want to think, then you’re right: The people who are weak and who won’t do real analysis, who will just have the appearance, will win the day. But I do think that after a while, when that happens, and if you have increased transparency, and the ability to open up in some ways—and we can get into some details about this, about how people can look at where people are getting their information—I think that the people who fake it, who have the appearance, in the long term can’t last. But in the short term, they do.

When you are in charge of a group of people or running an organization, you do have strategic decisions to make and whether they’re short term or long term. If they are short term, you will, I think, be seduced by appearance and the appearances of authenticity. But I think in the long term, authenticity does bear out. But call me an idealist.

Jones: Let me ask you this. You’re the editor of The New York Times, and you find out that one of your reporters, an African American with talented writing skills, has been making phony comments and piping quotes and doing things. The stories that he’s been writing for the most part are trivial. There have been some that are relatively important. But this is a genuine piece of reportorial dishonesty. And you are going to deal with it. What is the proper way? At what has recently been the greatest moment for journalistic credibility, USA Today, The New York Times, and others faced with these kinds of crises seem to have gone to the limit in being transparent, in acknowledging what happened, and trying to acknowledge what they did wrong. I have the sense that in the short term this has been very damaging to them rather than something that has helped them.

Stephenson: That may be, but I think a lot of people admire what they did in terms of chastising and firing the person. And I also think that people like that, who lie, should be exposed.

Jones: No question, but do we go overboard?

Stephenson: Not in my opinion, but it’s just my opinion. I think in the long term, it will bear out. There are hits that you take in the short term. Anybody who stands up and tries to do the right thing, you can line them up, ask them to turn around, and you can count the same number of arrows in their back. Anybody who does that has to be able to take a stand.

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