Time magazine announced its annual “Person of the Year” this week, naming several killed, imprisoned or threatened journalists as the collective honorees for 2018.
The group, which Time dubbed “The Guardians,” includes the staff of the Capital Gazette, the Maryland newspaper where five staff members were shot and killed in June; slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Maria Ressa of the Rappler news website in the Philippines, which has come under legal fire after scrutinizing President Rodrigo Duterte; and two journalists imprisoned in Myanmar following their work reporting on the persecution of that country’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
Recognizing the important and sometimes perilous work done in pursuit of truth, both around the world and here at home, is a worthy topic for Time to address. And while giving this annual recognition to members of its own profession seems a tad self-serving at first glance, Time’s story accompanying the selection displays a necessary self-awareness — not only of the challenges and dangers facing this industry, but how we all can do better to earn and keep the public’s trust.
As part of its discussion of media trust in an age of fake news accusations and social media confusion, the Time article turns to Joy Mayer, the director of the Trusting News Project — an initiative from the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri working with newsrooms to understand and bolster consumer trust.
“People assume the worst about journalism,” says Mayer in the story. “They have all these assumptions that we pay our sources, that when we talk about anonymous sources, we don’t even know who those sources are. They’re surprised that we have ethics policies and that we have long discussions about which word to use or which photo to use.”
The Time author, Karl Vick, correctly asserts that news organizations, in fact, shoulder some of the blame here, in part because of a well-intentioned tendency to separate ourselves from the stories we tell. Even if we consider ourselves guardians of truth, we shouldn’t be constantly guarded from our readers.
The truth is, we can and should do a better job helping the community understand the reporting process — how we do our work and the rules by which we operate. Trust and engagement works both ways and in a time of increased scrutiny the light we seek to shine in the communities we cover should extend to our own process as well.
Local journalism, in particular, has an opportunity to be helpful on this front. Capital Gazette editor Rick Hutzell offered an especially good perspective to that effect.
“Freedom of the press starts at the local level,” Hutzell said. “At the national level nobody’s listening — they’re all shouting too much.”
Perhaps even more illuminating is Hutzell’s hesitance to be part of Time’s recognition all together.
“I hate being the story,” Hutzell said in an accompanying Time story focusing on his newsroom, noting it was his first interview since the day after the shooting.
Hutzell’s discomfort is one that other journalists should share, adhering to a charge to report the news without becoming the news. But for Hutzell and others, sometimes that isn’t a choice.
Time didn’t have to chose fellow journalists for the 2018 “Person of the Year,” and perhaps there was a tinge of media self-aggrandizement. But this year’s selection ultimately offers important insights into the challenges and responsibilities inherent in reporting the news in today’s information landscape, for readers and journalists.