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The media should own its flaws. We should, too. (Podcast with Jane Velez-Mitchell)
What a former anchor’s battle with addiction can teach us about disinformation and trust.
In the summer of 2000, I went to work as an intern at CNN, as a doe-eyed 18-year-old, for a journalist named Brooks Jackson. Jackson, who made a name for himself as an investigative journalist at the Wall Street Journal, was known for his in-depth reports on political corruption. He told me that he had moved to CNN, in the heyday of cable news, because he saw immense potential in this new form of media: television could reach so many more people than the staid, old platform of print newspapers. With its reach, 24-hour TV news had the potential to build a civil society that was more informed and engaged.
I noticed immediately on arriving at CNN, however, that the promise of this new media didn’t seem to be panning out; we were more focused on titillating our audience than informing. One of the first projects I worked on was a segment on rising obesity, which had increased from 22% to 30% from 1994 to 2000. There was an enormous amount of compelling research coming out around 2000, that was changing the way we thought about obesity and metabolic disease. (Indeed, I began personally experimenting with new diets myself, on this basis, including a diet with one meal a day that is now known as “intermittent fasting.”) But our small team was not focused on trying to digest these complicated questions to help people lose weight; instead, we seemed to focus most of our time on finding alarming images that would attract the most attention. Our reporting depended on funding from our advertisers; we had to serve them, first and foremost.
So I spent my time in the video room going over volume after volume of archival video footage to find the most dramatic video of obesity. The important (but complex) research on the subject was left largely untouched. In the meantime, obesity rates have continued to rise, and obesity now affects over 42% of Americans.
What was true of our little report was true of the media at large. And while advertising profits for media companies have continued to skyrocket (with 2 out of the 10 largest companies in the nation - Google and Facebook - driven almost entirely by ad sales), trust in media is shockingly low, with 56% of Americans agreeing with the statement that "Journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations."
This is a dangerous place for society. When 1 in 2 people believe that their primary sources for information are deliberately misleading them, it’s hard for a nation, organization, or even local community to function because cooperation falls apart. And yet there are relatively few strategies or initiatives focusing on building media trust.
I wanted to have this conversation with former CNN Headline News anchor Jane Velez-Mitchell to help understand why. Why trust has fallen so much; why journalism seems unable to solve the problem, and why so few organizations seem focused on the goal of building trust in our society. But the conversation, as it often does, takes a surprising turn: Jane’s struggles with addiction.
And these two subjects – trust and addiction – that might seem to have nothing in common come together in a powerful way. Because it turns out the solution to both problems can be found in the same place: openness about our failures. Whether it’s a media platform that admits it got a story wrong, or an alcoholic admitting that they can’t control a self-destructive behavior, the key to progress might come from how we handle our mistakes, and not our successes.
Jane’s stories — from hitting rock bottom as an alcoholic to musing about Andy Warhol’s self-flagellating diaries — show us why.
Give this conversation a listen. And own a mistake or two of your own; it just might help you, or someone else, feel a little more trust in a very distrusting world.