Citizen Journalists Can Learn from Mistakes of Mainstream Media

In the United States, evening television news broadcasts are losing audience. In the spring of 2008 2.5 million viewers switched off the evening news. Statistically, this is only a small percentage of the overall viewing audience; but among those still watching television, the amount of television they watch each day is declining.

See this graph by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism:

Unfortunately, there is no end in sight for the declining numbers. According to, network news continued to lose audience in 2009.

Now that it’s 2010, do you think the network news people have figured out the answer to this simple question, “Why does our audience continue to decline?”

There are several reasons, but one glaring explanation is mistrust.

A September 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press revealed that a majority of Americans believe news organizations are unworthy of their trust. A whopping 63 percent of Americans said they believe that news stories are often inaccurate. Not even a third – 29 percent – believe news organizations generally get the facts correct.

If I was a network news executive, I’d call a meeting for tomorrow morning to ask all those well educated and highly paid brainiacs in the newsroom what the heck do they think they are doing? I’d show them the trust level back in 1985 when 34 percent believed news stories were inaccurate and 55 percent said they were accurate. I might even scream, “What have you done to our brand? Are you all nuts? Or deaf? Or what?”

Then I would demand three immediate changes.

1. First of all, I would demand absolute accuracy. I would inquire, “How hard is to check the facts on a news story? Good grief, that’s journalism 101 and half of you guys have graduate degrees! If more than half of your audience can spot your mistakes, why can’t you?”

2. Second, I would demand absolute fairness, which is another journalism 101 principle many newsroom occupants seem to have forgotten. “You don’t slant the news the way you want it to be; you tell it like it is,” I would growl. Then I would remind them that “to find out what the whole story is, sometimes you have to talk to people you don’t like or you don’t agree with. So get over it and allow them a voice so every story we report is evenhanded.”

3.  Third, I would demand a higher quality of news. That means I would require the newsroom people and the on-air personalities to treat their audiences with respect. My sermon would continue, “You’re not supposed to tell people what to think, you’re supposed to tell them what happened. They will figure out what to think about it by themselves.”

It appears that too many mainstream media types think the people who watch or read the news are stupid slugs with numb minds who slosh down beer and pretzels in their bib overalls while they wait for the well groomed and perfectly made-up mass media intellectuals to tell them what to think. Folks in the newsrooms need to learn that fly-over-country people are much smarter than the New England elitists and West Coast snobs think.

Citizen journalists need to keep in mind the important lesson that the legacy media has not yet learned, that their main stock in trade is trust. Lose trust - lose audience. Be accurate, fair and truthful, and you will have a growing, loyal audience.

Ron Ross is the co-author of "Handbook for Citizen Journalists" and the Catalyst-in-Chief of the National Association of Citizen Journalists.

1 Response to "Citizen Journalists Can Learn from Mistakes of Mainstream Media"

Susan Cormier's picture

Susan Cormier

Fri, 02/12/2010 - 17:50
<P>Couldn't agree with you more about the importance of trust. And the best way to gain that trust is through&nbsp;accuracy, fairness and truthfulness.</P>