The text on one of the plaques mounted in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University in New York caught my eye as I left the building earlier this month. The words its bronze letters spell out are easily the most famous Joseph Pulitzer ever put on paper.
“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together,” the quote begins.
As an alumnus of the Graduate School of Journalism, I passed by the plaque hundreds or thousands of times during my life. I always agreed with Pulitzer’s observation, but I now find it haunting.
All journalists should be troubled by the events taking place during these last few weeks of the 2016 presidential election. There is no doubt that a significant portion of people on both sides of the political spectrum distrust journalists and the press.
A substantial amount of work is needed to rebuild the public’s trust, but there are only 22 days until the election. Journalists and news organizations must take action during these last few weeks to restore at least some people’s faith in reporting and stories.
The shared knowledge among journalists that our colleagues across the country are fulfilling their duties is no longer good enough.
One potential approach is to be aggressively transparent for stories involving the election. Journalists and news organizations should go out of their ways to explain the reporting process for each story. If necessary, create a footnote. Seeing is believing in today’s world.
Another approach in the same vein is to publish or broadcast stories explaining the editorial processes in newsrooms. For example, who assigns stories? Do reporters pitch stories? Once assigned, how are stories reported? Who writes and edits the stories? How does the newsroom guarantee fairness? Who owns the news organization? Do the owners dictate what stories are told?
These approaches may seem odd or strange, but so are the current discussions taking place across the U.S.
Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for the White House, is repeatedly stating the upcoming election will be rigged with help from the press, for example. While I can’t find data to estimate how many people share his belief, it’s safe to assume that many people are at least talking about his comments.
In the past, journalists and news organizations could offer comfort to the American people during elections by explaining that they’ll be fulfilling their roles as watchdogs of democracy. Without aggressively trying to restore some faith in stories and reports coming out of U.S. news organizations, I don’t know if that assurance will cut it this time around.
I understand that many Americans still believe in the stories and reports ethical journalists publish and broadcast each day. For some reason, many other Americans don’t share that belief.
Journalists and news organizations need to immediately start taking steps to address this issue.
Pulitzer realized in 1904, when he wrote his famous words, that journalists have the ability to lead the country.
“The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations,” he wrote.
My hope is that journalists can harness their abilities to restore faith in its work and ensure the security of democracy in the U.S.