By Jane Carroll Andrade
Nashville—Ten years ago, as the number of statehouse reporters was dwindling and newspapers were folding, Evan Smith bucked the trend.
The co-founder of the Texas Tribune, a successful nonprofit online news organization dedicated to covering politics, policy, government and statewide issues, Smith says nonprofits like his are “coming to your state” because “the economics of the news business does not allow the coverage needed in a profit-making model.”
Smith has seen a lot of change in his 30 years as a journalist, but says covering the work of state government remains as crucial as ever. Smith shared his story and advice with hundreds of legislative staffers attending his talk, “Cultivating Credibility,” at the Salute to Legislative Staff Luncheon at NCSL’s Legislative Summit in Nashville last week.
“It’s not so much journalism as education,” Smith says. “If our job is to help people be the best Texans they can be, we need to give them the information they need. If we tee it up, there’s no guarantee people will get involved, but if we don’t tee it up, it’s guaranteed they won’t participate.”
Smith’s son recently asked him a question he hadn’t ever been asked: “What is journalism?”
“We search for the truth and we tell people what we find,” he answered. On further reflection, Smith says he felt compelled to add, “Sometimes we find the truth and sometimes we can’t find the truth—and we tell you why. It’s as important to tell you why we couldn’t find the truth as finding the truth and reporting it.”
Still, as noble as that all may sound, Smith says public distrust of journalists is at an all-time high. He outlined three major challenges for the news industry:
- Official condemnation from people in power. Smith admits that “we own a lot of the problems we have encountered. But our job is not to go to war, it’s to go to work. There is no problem in journalism that more and better journalism can’t fix.”
- Distrust. Two-thirds of the public think media favors one side, covers its mistakes and does not understand people like them. Smith said it is journalists’ responsibility to win back that trust.
- The economics of journalism means media outlets are “cutting what they can’t commodify.”
Smith also offered seven ideas for winning back the public trust—ideas that transcend journalism and can offer lessons for those in public service:
- Don’t editorialize or endorse. Smith argues that people don’t know the difference between the news and editorial sections of newspapers, which should move away from trying to sway people’s opinions. “Our job is not to tell people what to think. Our job is to tell people to think.”
- Be fair, thorough and accurate. “Credibility begins with getting it right,” he says.
- Show your work “like a fourth-grader in math class.” Smith says the public wants to scrutinize journalists’ work and that “we should lean into that. We have nothing to hide. It can only help.”
- Be just as transparent as the public officials we cover. “Expect no less of yourself than you expect of others.”
- Form human relationships. This will not hurt truth-seeking efforts, Smith says. “I’ve been texting my friends in the legislature about El Paso to say, ‘how are you doing?’ There’s nothing wrong and everything right with that.”
- Pull no punches but hit both cheeks. “When it’s appropriate, and only when it’s appropriate, call out the behavior of both parties.”
- Develop humility. Smith says the press has a “terrible habit” of getting defensive. The media expects public officials to cop to their mistakes and so should admit to their own. “If no one is concerned about ego, think about the good you can do.”
Jane Carroll Andrade is a program director in NCSL’s Communications Division.