National Press Club

Journalists, political leaders agree on blueprint to rebuild public trust in institutions

April 4, 2019 | By Kathy Kiely | kathy.kiely@gmail.com

Former White House press secretaries Ari Fleischer (left) and Mike McCurry speak during NPC Journalism Institute's 'Dialog in Democracy' event.

Former White House press secretaries Ari Fleischer (left) and Mike McCurry speak during NPC Journalism Institute's 'Dialog in Democracy' event.

Photo/Image: Melissa Lyttle

Journalists, elected officials and government communicators committed to concrete steps aimed at increasing trust and civility in public life during two days of intensive conversations at the National Press Club March 25-26..

Hosted by the Club’s nonprofit Journalism Institute and facilitated by the National Institute of Civil Discourse, the “Dialogue in a Divided Democracy” brought together more than 60 people — news media leaders and the people they cover — for face-to-face conversations about the challenges facing key American institutions. PEN America and the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership partnered in the event.

Among steps participants agreed to take:

•Engage in a practice of “radical transparency.” Journalists will open up newsrooms and their decision-making processes to the public and do a better job explaining the difference between opinion and news, as well as identifying more clearly “who is a journalist,” while elected officials will also commit to greater transparency and accessibility;

•Provide better training for new journalists and congressional staff who work with the press and offer opportunities for them to get to know peers in other parties and across the journalism/politician divide;

•Make more time to get to know each other and build relationships;

•Take steps to de-escalate danger and increase security for journalists and public officials alike;

•Avoid inflammatory language.

These commitments represent the results of dialogues that began at a Monday night dinner followed by a day of small group discussions on topics suggested by a series of speakers.

“We didn’t agree on everything or solve all of our problems but we did agree that we want to keep working to de-escalate the hostility in public life and do a better job for the public that we all serve,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the NPC Journalism Institute.

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director emerita of the National Institute of Civil Discourse, described it as an important first step towards changing the political ecosystem.“The experience brought renewed hope that we can rebuild the public’s trust in our democratic institutions,” she said.

Speakers cited a number of factors for the decline in trust and civility, including incentives for elected officials and media that reward speed and conflict -- with a news cycle that offers little time for nuance, context, reflection or relationship-building. “We should all think twice, or three times, before tweeting,” said Thomas O. Melia, Washington Director of PEN America,, “and maybe eliminate comments about people altogether, and stick to issues and ideas.”

Former White House press secretaries Mike McCurry and Ari Fleischer pleaded for less breathless incrementalism in news coverage: “When you cover every pitch, you miss the game,” said Fleischer.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and former Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said the same lack of deliberation has cheapened discourse in the political sphere. “There’s a reward for snarkiness and nastiness and little for thoughtfulness and analysis,” Flake said. Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., raised concerns about political activists who masquerade as members of the press. “They use the title of journalist,” he said.

Speakers from the world of journalism cited the collapse of employment in the industry as a major factor in the loss of community cohesion and urged a recommitment to local news. “I learned to be a journalist covering local news,” said Politico Editor Carrie Budoff Brown. “I don’t believe there are as many of those opportunities for reporters.”

Rick Hutzell, editor of the Capital Gazette, the Annapolis, Md., newspaper that lost five employees when a gunman attacked the newsroom last year, said he has been heartened to find out how much his organization means to the community. Key to that relationship is a willingness to “keep talking,” he said.

Several editors said they are having success working for non-profit news operations that enlist the community in identifying and dissecting difficult stories.

Resolve Philadelphia provides a platform for 22 local newsrooms to work “from the same bank of resources” on stories ranging from the reintegration of released prisoners into society, the city’s persistent poverty rate, and municipal elections, said Cassie Haynes, the program’s co-executive director.

Acknowledging that sometimes journalists have “acted like jerks,” Doug Oplinger said that as head of the journalistic collaborative Your Voice Ohio he urged them to act like members of the community. Journalists shouldn’t be afraid to say “I want the world to get better,” and offer ideas for solutions to the problems they uncover, said the former Akron Beacon Journal editor.