The value of authenticity

Posted on May 12, 2010 by Janet Coats

The real value of journalism is embedded in journalists who understand the communities they cover so deeply that they know where true expertise lies and then use that expertise to advance both knowledge and action.

That’s how I answered my own question last week about what makes journalism journalism in a social media age, when most news is a commodity that you can get from a multitude of sources.

Leave it to Yvette Hammett to challenge me to stand and deliver on my definition.

Yvette is a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. I worked with her there when I was editor, but our connection goes back almost 25 years. We worked together then at The Stuart News on Florida’s East Coast.

Yvette has challenged my thinking about what makes good journalism a lot through those years. She is a passionate reporter, whose coverage of environmental issues has been very important to her and to the communities she serves.

After she read my post, Yvette challenged me on the community-building aspect of my definition – that journalists have value both through informing their communities and through moving them to action. Yvette said she worried about the perception of “taking sides.’’

“One of the difficult thing about being a journalist, for me, has always been keeping my big opinions to myself and the cheerleading to a minimum,’’ Yvette wrote me on Facebook. “Am I wrong?”

Yvette’s question started me thinking about how community building could work as a practical matter.

The most basic step is simply being authentic about who you are. That might seem obvious, but journalists every day contort themselves into human pretzels to avoid revealing what they know about the stories they cover. Every story is a new day, even if the reporter has years of experience covering similar topics.

New media journalists are learning that their experience – their personal knowledge of the news they are covering – is what gives them value.

For years, a journalist’s credibility was derived from the institution that employed her. More doors opened for you if you worked for a paper that was well-known and respected in the community you were covering.

But in a social age, credibility increasing springs from the individual. It is the relationships the journalist builds in his community, the reputation he has for honesty and knowledge of his subject that opens doors for him.

When I was at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute last month, I saw a video of an interview with Politico co-founder and executive editor Jim VanderHei. In it, he said a decision made at the beginning of the site made all the difference in its success. Instead of hiring a corps of nameless reporters as manpower, VanderHei knew it would be better to spend money hiring reporters with deep experience covering Washington and the kind of personal credibility that would build the site’s brand quickly. You might get fewer of them, but they’d have the kind of reputation that would draw eyeballs to the site right away. Politico draws 2 million unique visitors and has annual revenues north of $15 million; that reservoir of instant authenticity boosted its appeal out of the gate.

We aren’t all Politico. But what if, wherever we are, we stated our bona fides as part of our journalism. What if we reported what we knew to be fact as fact, in an authoritative voice. For a reporter like Yvette, that would mean disclosing as part of her journalism that she’s been covering environmental issues for the better part of two decades, that she has furthered her education as a reporter to develop her expertise in that coverage.

It would mean disclosing that covering the environment is something she wants to do, that it’s not just any story to her but one that she believes is important to the future of the community.

It would mean disclosing that she cares. I would argue that is an important step in building your own credibility – and taking a role in building community.

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