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‘Trust and integrity in the modern media’ – Chris Cramer’s speech to Nottingham Trent University

This is the full transcript of a speech given by Chris Cramer, global head of multimedia for Reuters’ news operations, at Nottingham Trent University last night. Journalism.co.uk’s report on the address can be read at this link.

So I accepted this invitation shortly after I retired from CNN international – where I was managing director and where I’d been for 11 years or so.

I became a consultant for Reuters news in January and now, in the last few months, have become their first global editor for multimedia.

So, I’m talking to you today as a working journalist, broadcaster and manager for 43 years now and what I would like to talk about is ‘trust and integrity in the modern media’.

I also want to ask the question of you whether the media has maybe lost the message somewhere along the way?

So here’s my starting question: give me a show of hands if you trust the print media today, newspapers and magazines? How about TV and radio news?

And let’s ask the same question about the internet – and that will include Facebook and Twitter and social networking sites in general,   how much do you trust them?

And that’s an interesting set of responses I think.

It’s not an overstatement I think to suggest that we are in the middle of a revolution in information flow. Many old theories are broken. Many media businesses have closed in the face of competition and rising costs.

The old paradigms, the old rules and theories, are really threatened by the amount of information, chatter, chaff, stuff that is available to us all day, all night, all of the time.

Some of you may have heard of Marshall McLuhan – in his time considered the high priest of pop culture.

McLuhan was a Canadian, an educator, philosopher and scholar and certainly someone who – 40 or 50 years ago now – fastened onto the notion of the global village.

The fact we were, and are, all connected. In fact he is said to have invented the phrase. Though he probably saw the global village as more of a threat than a good thing. He believed it created tribalism and fear; xenophobia and even racism.

He is also credited with first coining the word media and asserting that the medium was the message. I think he meant that the mechanics of the media, the distribution system, the platform, rather than the content itself was the main influencer.

And consider that McLuhan wrote all of this long before the internet existed. A long time.

So I’d like to talk today about what role the media can play in a changing world and what its responsibilities should be.

Is it a passive window on the world, an inanimate mirror which reflects simply what is happening or does the media have a true social responsibility beyond getting ratings and readership and making profit? Can the media and journalists make the world a better place? Or are they just lazy tools of a fickle society?

Have readers and viewers and consumers lost trust in the mainstream media and do they now prefer to gather their own information via the internet and blog sites?

I want also to talk about so-called citizen journalism.

Are we all – you and me – active newsgatherers ?

Given the number of cameras and cellphones we have are we indeed taking over from conventional journalists and reporters?

They say there may be a billion high definition cellphone cameras out there in the world. Quite a few in the audience here I suspect (film that side of my face please, I prefer it).

So how does that change the balance of information flow ?

And if you accept we – you – are now active newsgatherers, do we have any responsibility to maintain balance and paint a fair and accurate picture of unfolding events.

Let me also talk about integrity and trust and whether that still plays any part in media coverage – where does opinion and spin fit with the notion of impartial journalism.

So let me start by stating the obvious:

The media world is changing so rapidly and so quickly that many of us who work in it are frequently overwhelmed by what’s going on, even frightened at the speed of change. Frightened as well that we may be left behind, even become irrelevant.

Recent research in the states, where I live, says only about 20 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 even look at a daily newspaper.

30,000 media jobs in the states have disappeared over the last two years and that pace is accelerating in the past few months with the economic meltdown. More journalists being laid off this year than ever before.

Here in the UK a similar situation. On TV, ITV pulling back from local news. ITV’s main news, according to Michael Grade, may be jeopardy in a few years time. ITV’s rolling TV news channel dumped a few years back.

At the same time, we are living a fragmented and confusing world – a world of so many information options – that our level of trust in conventional, traditional media providers is probably at an all-time low.

In fact, there is a strong, prevailing belief that the traditional media, has had its day, gradually becoming irrelevant.

Take it from me that much of it, print and broadcast, is thrashing about in an identity crisis trying to rediscover its connection point with the consumer. Experimenting with reality TV, raucous news delivery, opinionated ranting – what I call shout and scream TV news – where every story is a crisis, every day is chaos.

Everything is presented to create fear and conflict.

News where there is little or no distinction between a terrorist attack and a fat cat stuck up a tree somewhere.

There is a criminal on every corner.  Al Qaeda lives next door.  It’s a good day when the threat alert is only orange.

Just hang on here – we know the world is not like that most of the time.

So what to do? How do you react when, it seems, the traditional media is letting you down?

Many millions of people (not just the young like many of you) are already bypassing traditional news sources. Abandoning the news providers that your parents so relied upon, maybe still rely on.

Let me explain.

I have spent the best part of 40 years or more working in the newsgathering business. I started as a cub reporter in local newspapers.

After a few unexceptional years in print I joined the BBC when I was about 20, first in radio and then into television, and then into TV news as a producer and later an editor.

Newsgathering is the stuff that makes news what it is. The content. The stories. The raw material that drives news bulletins and programmes. Some might say that engine that drives the rest of the news machine.

In recent years though, as I said, many more people around the world have the capacity to be newsgatherers. With the advent of cheap video cameras and now cellphone cameras anyone can be a news gatherer. You or me.

With devices like this – the flip camera – one hour of video, great quality, great video and audio. Shoot and plug into your laptop to share with a friend or upload to YouTube.

Truth to tell it is unusual these days for real, professional journalists to be first on the scene of a news story.

Plenty of recent examples: floods in the UK, hurricanes in the US, earthquakes in Asia.

Where most of the compelling pictures and stories came from local citizens or tourists. Eyewitness. On the spot. Much more visceral if you like than anything a journalist could have produced arriving on the scene a few days later.

And we have YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and other social networking.

Real time information and video exchanged at the speed of light – much faster and frequently more accurate than conventional news exchange.

We had eyewitness video of the al Qaeda attacks on New York in 2001. And the terrorist bombings in London in July 2005.

Manmade and natural mayhem these days tends to be covered not by media professionals but from people like you.

One of the most historical events of the decade – the execution of Saddam Hussein –was filmed not by the Iraqi authorities or the Americans but by one of Saddam’s prison guards. On his cellphone camera.

That’s what I mean by anyone being a newsgatherer.

One of the key weapons in the armory of any terrorist group these days is a video camera or a cellphone.  It is as deadly a weapon as the AK47 and the suicide belt. Some might say much more deadly. (It stays, lingers, long after the event itself. Part of history)

So who needs the traditional, mainstream media for the message these days. Why don’t we just bypass those conventional information providers?

Any of us can set out with our cameras and an internet connection and start to change the world ourselves.

What a breathtaking opportunity this gives us, you might argue.

An opportunity to promote social and environmental change, to influence the course of history, through social and peer-to-peer networking.

In fact we can use new technology to create our own brand – to become the brand.

Some might go further And argue that if the outcome is profound enough why be hidebound by any ethical considerations? Doesn’t the effect outweigh the methods?

Doesn’t the end result justify the means?

Some examples that immediately come to mind:

Is it acceptable for environmental campaigners, producing say user-generated content and posting it on YouTube, to provide just a few misleading facts to make their point just a little stronger?

Is it fair game to abuse, adjust, sex up, some of the data in = viral campaigns and spam if the cause, as they see it, is legitimate?

How about creating fake election messages to distort one candidates viewpoint – to advantage the other. We saw many examples of that in the recent US election.

In fact do social or political campaigners – people desperate for change – need to abide by those same codes of conduct relating to integrity or the invasion of privacy that news organizations like Reuters, the BBC and CNN have to abide by? Spent years creating.

And what should our considerations be about balance or fairness or having a point of view? If a social filmmaker is focusing on the plight of the Kurds why should he care about giving the Turkish point of view? If you are promoting change in the Middle East why give the Israelis equal time with the Palestinians?

The list is endless.

In effect, how many perspectives or points of view should be given airtime or exposure ?

What level of moral equivalency is the right level. Doesn’t balance get in the way of social change?

These are powerful questions which too rarely get proper discussion.

And what about taste and decency?

A few weeks ago I read the most disgusting reporting via Twitter from a local reporter in America actually sending text reports from the graveside as parents buried their three year old. Describing the teddy bear in the coffin. The parents on their knees sobbing.

Has information technology driven us all mad?

Or the absurdity, here in the UK, last month of two national broadcasters leaving a series of offensive messages on someone’s answerphone boasting about the apparent sexual conquest of his granddaughter.

Doesn’t sensitive reporting and broadcasting and editorial integrity still have a place in today’s media?

I am happy to give you my view which you can agree with, laugh at or just ignore. They say it’s a free world.

My view comes wrapped up in that something called integrity.

What use is news and information from any party without complete integrity, editorial integrity. Shouldn’t we all have a simple set of values to guide us a moral compass.

But what exactly is editorial integrity? In the dictionary you will see integrity defined as ‘an adherence to moral principles… honesty… the quality of being unimpaired… soundness… wholeness… unity.”

And you can’t boast about editorial integrity. It is not a marketing ploy or a t-shirt slogan.

It is practised every day. It is demonstrable. And it is in the past tense. You can’t promise integrity without being able to point at something you have done. I think journalists are only ever as good as the story they last covered.

Reuters – where I work now – defines its journalism in a number of ways. Through its history – a century and a half of serving the world – the breadth of its journalism (2,500 hundred journalists working in almost 200 bureaus and read by more than one billion people each day).

But it also defines its journalism because of something called the Reuters Trust Principles.

Reuters believes that trust is everything, the bedrock of free information flow. They believe [sic] that everything done commercially enhances its reputation rather than undermining the principles that have taken a century and a half to build up.

That integrity, independence and freedom from bias define the organization.

And Reuters is a business. it does not shy away from that.

But it believes that trust and integrity make it a much stronger business. people, customers, end users, place a true value against these qualities. The principal reason that I am happy and privileged to now work there.

Truth to tell, there is plenty of lousy journalism out there today which may be why the public are so distrusting of the traditional media.  There is too much journalism with cant and rant and a-not-so-cleverly disguised, camouflaged, axe to grind point of view.

News which says it is trusted and fair and balanced and which is patently anything but.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I have nothing against opinionated news. Some people like their news to come with a spin and a certain shrillness.

But we need to label it as such. This is opinion.

It cannot come as part of a clever confidence trick to get consumer attention, page views or ratings.

News organizations, those who disseminate news and information, those who tell a story – have a huge responsibility to represent all sides, all religions, all persuasions. Not just the so-called underdogs as we might see them.

I’m afraid most journalists have a propensity to speak just for what they regard as the underdog. The victim. It’s too simple to apply our labels to people and social issues.

We should speak for all sides – fairly, honestly and with balance. No one or no cause should get an easy ride from us.

So I don’t believe the end result justifies the means.

I don’t believe that you should distort the message to get the outcome you need or seek to persuade other people of the strength of your argument by adjusting the facts to suit the argument.

I don’t believe the internet should be used to disseminate rumour and gossip to somehow make your point. I certainly abhor the frequent trend to whip up fervour and anger by means of innacuracy and the deliberate focus on the untruth.

I think this is what our friend Marshall McLuhan meant so many years ago when he talked about the medium being the message. That the so-called global village – courtesy of available technology – is not always a force for good.

More an opportunity, in the wrong hands, for electronic mob rule. Something intelligent people should be wary of.

What I do believe is that we are living in an extraordinary interconnected world where an event on one side of the globe can have a profound effect on people many thousands of miles away.

The economic meltdown around the world is certainly the best example I can think of or where an occasion such as this one, today in Nottingham, can travel on the internet and the airwaves and the jetstream to many people a world away.

I believe that even in this rapidly changing world some principles are immutable. Whether you are a longtime journalist such as me – or a citizen newsgatherer, like all of you have the potential to be.

In particular, journalists and the media need to build trust and practise integrity each and every day. Remember those Reuters Trust Principles.

Those over-arching principles set us all apart from the unprincipled mob.

Even as we embrace every new information platform available to us we need to stay focused on integrity and brand value.

I take great comfort from believing that audiences and customers do gravitate towards the editorial brands that they trust. That it is worth staying true to the values we believe in.

So far as my chosen profession is concerned – if we wish to remain relevant and successful – we would do well to remember that journalists are not important at all – but what we do is important.

I thank you for listening.

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  • Trust and integrity should indeed be part of a news brand – and it is important that someone somewhere upholds this and develops a decent rep for it. But it will still have to compete for readers along with the false, the one-sided and the opinionated.

    Sussed online news readers will read around a story and see through the biases – not actually that difficult with opinionated blogs or a series of multiple one-sided viewpoints.

    Falsifying info – now that’s a different matter. As a sub-editor, I see value in a news site that doesn’t necessarily write the story (to fit an angle or space on a page) but provides just the facts as a service with double/triple checked ticks, decent sources cited and also referenced in time, to allow for follow-up amendments as the story develops over time.

    But with direct-to-web story filing and all the sub sackings of late, can trad news media provide this? Could it be a paid-for or sponsored service instead? A kind of centralised set of independent copy checkers who trace info back to the source but in a transparent way.

    Just a thought. I fear for the facts!

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