Lessons in trust for student journalists

Trust. We crave it. In family and friends, products, institutions, and ideas.

So why is it so hard to come by? How do we know our information won’t be leaked on FaceBook? How can we believe what we hear on T.V.? What we read in the news?

With the rise of new sources, coming from the Internet and offline, the line between what’s real and what’s not is blurred. And getting blurrier.

In the era of Trump, who has banned the New York Times and CNN from press briefings, and handed out “Fake News Awards” to prestigious news organizations, what kind of message does this give to people already wary of the fourth estate?

This is especially a concern of student journalists who wonder what the real world has in store for them.

A Gallup Poll from 2017 that concluded 84% of Americans think news media is “critical” or “very important” to democracy, but only 28% believe that the media is upholding that democracy. In a different poll from Reuters-Ipsos conducted in 2017, Americans’ confidence in the press rose from 39% to 48% from November 2016 to October 2017.

How can that be scaled down to focusing on the Boston University community? Following in Reuters and Gallup’s footsteps, I sent out a poll I created, on Twitter, FaceBook, and various group chats I am a part of with five questions. I received 52 responses from members of the Boston University community.

  1. Have you ever read/viewed something from the following publications?

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 10.48.58 PM2. How often do you keep up with these publications?

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3. Which publication do you trust the most for BU news/events?

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4. How likely are you to speak to writers of these publications?

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5. What influences your decision to trust one publication over the other?

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The results confused and surprised me a little. Some people hadn’t even read articles by Boston University News Service (BUNS), let alone heard of them enough to trust them, so I turned to both a professional and a professor here at Boston University.

Although Professor Jane Regan was never a student journalist herself at Harvard University – she studied Renaissance Music – her experience as the faculty advisor for Boston University News Service (BUNS) this year, as well as in teaching a Beat Reporting class, gives her insight into what student journalists face day to day.

Regan said it actually helps students to introduce themselves as student journalists.

“I tell them to introduce themselves as student journalists, or as an intern for the Cambridge Chronicle who is also a student, and they say that it actually helps for them to say they’re a student. Because then, the person that they’re interviewing, or the person that that they’re asking for background information, they actually take more pity on them, and they give them more time. They realize that they are helping to train someone who will someday not be given that time.”

“That surprised me,” said Reagan. “But I think, especially as my class works more and more in Cambridge, and the city of Cambridge and the readers get used to the idea of all these young people, they’re getting the benefit of the doubt. I thought that people would give them less time, like ‘ugh, it’s just a student,’ but I think when they see that they’re getting published, they’re really nice, they take the extra time, they call me up and say, ‘hey, I think your student might not have gotten something right, you might want to check this.’”

This directly contrasts with the results I got. I admit I was hopeful BU students wouldn’t be as cynical about talking to the publications on campus, and 23 said they would speak to all, but a good 13 said they would talk to none.

Being a student journalist myself, I’ve faced people who would rather not speak to me, or only speak to me if I promised anonymity, be it for class assignments, or when I formerly wrote for The Tab BU. I decided to speak to someone who wrote for a different publication during her time at BU.

Taylor Kocher (COM ’19), wrote for the Daily Free Press until recently, and spoke to me about when she first started out taking stories.

“In the beginning of my college years, I think I was definitely less comfortable with who I was as a reporter, as a journalist,” said Kocher. “So I think more in the beginning, when I was less sure of myself, people were more wary about talking to me.”

“There definitely are people who are just friendly, so they will talk to you, but it’s always the awkward situation when you walk up to them, how do you introduce yourself? Do you say that, ‘I’m doing this for a class, I’m a journalist?’ Then by looking at you they can tell how old you are, so sometimes that does create a negative experience – not that people were rude. I don’t really have any memories of being treated really rudely, but I feel like I get talked down to a little – just get treated less seriously.”

Kocher learned that how she was presenting herself wasn’t working out, so she changed, even though it was hard.

“But I think as I took more journalism classes, worked up from JO250, the intro level, and taking beat reporting this semester, I’ve tried to change my presence as I go up to people, and being more confident and more assertive, because I think that’s the thing most student journalists struggle with – even more so female reporters in general, especially when you’re talking to older men, and people of power.”

Kocher finished the interview with a strong message for student journalists.

“The bottom line is that when you’re a student journalist, you definitely have to really assert yourself, and you have to make sure people know you’re doing real work. It could just be for a class, but it could end up anywhere, really. You’re going to COM for a reason, you’re doing the journalism program for a reason, so we’re learning these professional skills to be in the workforce in a couple of years, so you just have to make sure you’re confident in what you do.”

In this era of distrust, what is the answer for journalists?

Where people in the greater national population, and even close to home in Boston, are just a little less likely to trust journalist, or even read articles published, we can only keep doing what we do, knowing our goal at the end of the day is to provide them with fair and balanced reporting so that they can be better informed of what is going on in their community and even around the country and the world.

Then, we can only hope that armed with the truth, they can come to informed conclusions, and learn to trust journalists again.


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