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Former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan talks distrust in media, experience holding newsrooms accountable

Former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan shared the reasons behind declining trust in media and how to combat it on Thursday. 

Sullivan, who will join Duke as the 2023 Egan Visiting Professor, was also a Washington Post media columnist. During the event, titled “How Americans Lost (and Can Regain) Trust in the Press,” Sullivan spoke about her book, “Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-Stained Life." She discussed her opinions on objectivity in journalism and her personal experiences on holding a newsroom accountable. She also answered questions posed by students and Duke community members. 

Sullivan addressed why Americans have gradually lost trust in the press. Having lived through the Watergate scandal, she recounted that 76% of Americans felt that mainstream media was trustworthy in the 1970s. Today, trust in the press has dropped “well below” below 50%, Sullivan said. 

Sullivan said that some people say they want just “the facts” and they want journalists to “stop putting their opinion into things.”

“But the reality is that when they go to seek out news, and when they go to seek out their sources of news … they often actually are more drawn to the outrage factor,” she said.

Sullivan also addressed former President Donald Trump’s role in decreasing public trust in the media.

“Donald Trump, whether as [a] candidate or as president, has made it his business to tell people not to trust the press, and that the media is bad,” Sullivan said. “Did Trump invent the lack of trust of the press? Absolutely not. Did he make it worse? Yes, I think he did.”

To supplement this, Sullivan emphasized her dislike of the word “objectivity” when referring to the media because it “causes pointless arguments.”

“I like to say fairness, accuracy, evidence, facts, you know, things like that, which I think are a little less emotional … they don't set people off quite as much,” Sullivan said.

To increase trust in the media, Sullivan recommended that individuals increase support for local journalism. She also highlighted the importance of teaching news literacy at “every level.” Sullivan also mentioned that news organizations should be more transparent about their work, to tell people that media organizations do not exist solely for profit, but that they “serve a very important public purpose.”

In character with her former role as the Times public editor, Sullivan also mentioned how news organizations are meant to keep other people and institutions accountable, but fail to keep themselves accountable in many ways. 

She mentioned how the public editor job, a role that does not exist anymore, was seen as the “worst job” in journalism because it involved publicly critiquing colleagues, similar to the internal affairs division in the police department. However, she believed the role was important for journalistic integrity.

“The fact is that as a nation, we don't really have a common ground of reality that we all share,” she said. “And I don't know that we can really function as a democracy without that.”


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