Veteran journalist restores trust in guest speakers

Melanie Johnson, Writer

Three months after President Donald Trump was elected, a nationally syndicated columnist came to the college to speak about the country’s tense political environment.

The columnist was Leonard Pitts and the title of his talk was, “Where Do We Go from Here?”

Pitts is an eloquent writer and speaker. He accurately described the political climate at the time while also addressing the media’s role, which he said was to “tell the truth but leave people with hope…a reason to believe things will get better.”

While Pitts was well-intentioned, as a journalist himself, he did not provide that hope. In fact, he said that finding hope postelection was a “rather difficult prospect.”

His presentation caused quite a stir at the college, among both faculty and students.

And it made some of us reluctant to attend speaking events on campus. Especially events that involved journalism or politics. However, a recent guest speaker sponsored by the newly renamed Journalism and Media Studies department in October changed that, at least for this student.

Award winning veteran reporter Leslie L. Zaitz’s presentation “Regaining Trust — Job No. 1 for the Media,” was refreshing. Rather than stirring up the crowd and trying to rally them as Pitts had done, he simply offered hope and a plan.

“When journalists and the community work together good things happen to make the community a better place and can make the country stronger,” Zaitz said.

Now, that’s hope.

Discussions about how the media can regain the public’s trust are important conversations to have, Scott Nelson, Linfield’s director of communication and marketing said.

We live in a time when newsrooms are “stretching the truth and aiming for small wins …distorting people’s view of America,” Zaitz said.

For example, The New York Times recently posted a story on its front-page reporting that Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh threw ice on a man in a bar—when he was in college.

That is not news worth reporting, Zaitz said.

Raise your hand if you have ever thrown an ice cube at someone in a bar.

It seems the media are increasingly using supermarket tabloid tactics to sell what they are trying to pass off as news.

Reporting has become more about winning than telling the truth, Zaitz said. Major news sources focus is on “out-trumping” one another, he said.

Is there anything we can do about this? Yes.

Journalists and the public both have a part to play to successfully effect change, he said, and it must start at the local level.

Newspapers can do a better job reporting the news people want and need in their communities and admit when they make a mistake, he said.

As consumers, we can be more discerning about the stories we read, believe and share on social media. People who take time to consider the source of a story can tell the difference between real news and click bait, he said.

We can also pick up—or better yet subscribe to a local paper, donate to public radio and encourage friends and families to do the same.

Or as Zaitz said, “Subscribe, donate [and] vote with your check book.”

If people want accurate news, they must be willing to pay for it, so journalists can stay on the job, he said.

Look for those who are reporting the news and doing it accurately. Then, acknowledge it with a comment, post, thank you note or email applauding them for their work, he said. It will make a difference.

“You have the ability, you can be a partner and get news you trust,” he said.

Those are words that impart hope.