When Journalistic Trust is a Matter of Life and Death

We in the US are frequently critical of the media.  And when we talk about trust, it is often in at a luxury level.

But tonight I attended the 20th Press Freedom Awards, presented by the Committee to Project Journalists –and got rudely reminded of how trust and journalism and life and death play intricate dances with each other in this world.

Yes, it was a swish event: black-tie, about a thousand guests, celebrity hosts—Tom Brokaw (who pinch-hit for Brian Williams—something to do with his day job and Korea), Christiane Amanpour, Gwen Ifill, Sir Howard Stringer. But it was a very serious event too.

Journalism is Hazardous to Your Health

39 journalists have been killed in 2010. Since 1992, 840 journalists have been murdered with impunity. Murder may be the leading cause of death for journalists–and the killers are rarely prosecuted, or even sought.  At this moment, 140 journalists are imprisoned around the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists fights on their behalf; in Iran, Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Russia, Mexico. They provide legal assistance, personal help—and aggressively intercede with national governments. 

Interestingly, virtually every government at least admits the principle that they shouldn’t be harming journalists. And thus the power of the press to “name and shame,” as one awardee put it, is far-reaching.

The Power of Truth and Trust

One of the most basic parts of the Trust Equation is credibility—can we believe what we are told. At a social level, this is a critical question: are we being told the truth? 

If a social group believes it is being told the truth, then we can trust what we hear, and trust the teller. If we do not believe we are being told the truth, then we don’t trust the teller—and it all goes downhill from there.

In society, the enemy of truth-telling is typically a government, a would-be government, or a quasi-government: some group of people who want to control others, and who fear that the truth will get in their way of doing so. 

And in society, it is the job of journalists to tell the truth. By that definition, it is journalists who are in charge of the level of trust in society. If they are allowed to operate, they oxygenate our dialogue. If they are repressed (or, as one awardee pointed out, simply denigrated over and over), then our oxygen flow is reduced.  We don’t believe.  And then we don’t trust–government, business, the other political party, our neighbors. 

Is Truth Relative? Come On

Some critics will say that ‘truth’ and a ‘free press’ are bourgeois affectations of a society that is itself corrupt. Sara Palin talks about the ‘lamestream’ press, and both right- and left-wing critics say there can be no such thing as ‘truth.’

And then there are the facts staring you in the face in that room tonight.

Journalists are convicted of terrorism for reporting the facts of arrest in Russia. A journalist ‘disappeared’ in Sri Lanka 300 days ago, but the government hasn’t initiated efforts to ‘find’ him. 30 journalists were massacred in the Philippines, but attorneys are not being granted access to the evidence.

You have to be Taliban-far out of the mainstream to argue that this kind of suppression isn’t a bad thing. We can all agree.

And if so, there you go. Social trust thrives on truth. Truth is sought by journalists. The attempt to suppress or neutralize them is anti-truth, and anti-trust.

As Tom Brokaw pointed out in his closing, we have luxury debates in the US. Our freedom of speech is enshrined in a constitutional amendment–the first one, in fact. Watching five people from foreign lands who put their freedom and even their lives at risk in search of those rights is a humbling experience.