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Inside the newsroom: Three events from the past week may have you asking, can you trust a journalist?

Pew survey: Those who think journalists behave unethically are less likely to say journalists care about people like them than those who think journalists are relatively ethical.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Consider these three events from the past week:

1. Journalist Cokie Roberts passed away at the age of 75 and the tributes came pouring in, including reminders of the ethics she maintained throughout her decades in TV, radio and print journalism. The Radio, Television, Digital News Association noted this telling statement she gave in accepting a First Amendment award in 2009.

“We have to be ready to shine light on what’s going on … but we also have to be able to create some light.”

2. The New York Times found itself in the crosshairs of the public and other journalists after reporting failures in the release of a new book by two of its writers on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It detailed allegations of wrongdoing by the judge in his youth, but omitted key details. Here’s what Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote this week:

“The recent fiasco at The New York Times, which last weekend published the latest uncorroborated sexual-assault accusation against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, was a monument to hearsay and a travesty of journalistic ethics.”

3. And finally, the latest survey and headline out of the Pew Research Center focused on trust: “Why Americans Don’t Fully Trust Many Who Hold Positions of Power and Responsibility.”

Congress fared poorly in the trust survey. So did leaders of tech companies (they make great products, said respondents, but lack empathy). Journalists? They were right in the middle of survey results, with 15% of respondents saying journalists are unethical all or most of the time, and 51% saying journalists are unethical some of the time. That’s a full two-thirds of respondents who believe journalists behave unethically some of the time.

At the Deseret News we strive to maintain empathy as we report and hope our ethics align with the sentiments Cokie Roberts expressed, bringing truth and light to the world. Opinion editor Boyd Matheson created a little light in a piece headlined: “What a Pentagon Uber driver taught me about living within the parentheses of a crazy idea.”

He wrote: “Our finest hours as a nation have not come about when things were certain and settled. The most important breakthroughs and break-withs, triumphs and transformations occur within the parentheses of a crazy idea.” His column helped us understand the value of a new way of thinking.

Deseret News journalist Gillian Friedman wrote this week about a crisis in family court. This Deseret News investigation can be summed up this way:

“Since 2008, more than 700 children across the nation have been killed by a parent or parental-figure during circumstances involving divorce, separation, custody, visitation or child support.” It explores what happens in court and the difficult job judges have in balancing the desire to keep families together, and the need to protect children from abusive parents. This story shined light on a difficult societal problem.

Shining light and creating light. Or said another way, identifying problems but giving a greater measure of effort to reporting on solutions. We are striving to do that.

In the case of the New York Times piece, the failure was in omitting key details of the investigation into Justice Kavanaugh. The Times later corrected the omission — a sign of an ethical organization — but it should not have happened to begin with at an organization that is viewed as a journalism leader. It left many questioning not just the ethics of the organization but the motivations of the reporters.

The fact that other journalists quickly criticized the reporting is a sign of industry self-correction. That leaves readers to make a determination on journalism. The Times reporting can be viewed as another reason not to trust journalists, or perhaps it is a reason to trust journalists by recognizing they are fallible but striving to correct when performance doesn’t measure up.

The Pew survey was fascinating. Deseret News writer Kelsey Dallas detailed its findings in article upon its release Thursday:

“Lack of faith in people in power stems from a variety of context-specific factors, rather than a general sense of pessimism, the survey showed. Americans hold complex and at-times contradictory views on police officers, politicians, members of the clergy and other community leaders.”

Here’s more of what Pew said about journalists:

“Those who think journalists behave relatively unethically are less likely to say journalists care about people like them than those who think journalists are relatively ethical (45% vs. 69%). The same divides show up when asked if journalists do a good job reporting important news that serves the public (61% vs. 81%), cover all sides of an issue fairly (47% vs. 71%) and admit mistakes and take responsibility for them (37% vs. 62%).

It makes sense. If you believe journalists are unethical why would you believe anything they are reporting? Why would you believe they care about you?

Whether it’s a journalist like Cokie Roberts, reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post or anywhere, it is up to the reader to identify who they trust and why they trust them. Better said is this: Where is the light?