According to a September 2019 Gallup poll, only 41 percent of Americans trust the mass media to report news fully, accurately, and fairly—down four percentage points from the previous year.

Two journalists serving as the Jepson 2019-20 leaders-in-residence—NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe and Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams—sought to mitigate this distrust of the media during their Oct. 2 campus visit.

After speaking to two Jepson School of Leadership Studies classes, they led a lunchtime discussion for Jepson students, faculty, and staff on the importance of a free, open media to a healthy democratic society.

“I see accountability as central to what I do,” Rascoe said. “Most journalists are idealists. They want to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Part of my job is to challenge leaders and ask questions that get to the heart of matters that affect people.”

Rascoe underscored the role investigative reporting plays in holding elected officials and government accountable. She credited expert investigative reporting by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Miami Herald for breaking stories on the Russian investigation, Stormy Daniels, and Jerry Epstein, respectively. 

“Nothing we’re talking about—whether it’s Donald Trump or Richmond City Council—works without us,” Williams said of journalists. “You can look at any country in the world, and the quality of life is directly proportionate to the quality of the free press.”

Both Rascoe and Williams agreed that attacks on the media by public and elected officials is partly to blame for the public’s lack of confidence in the press.

“We in the media have been part of a 13-decades campaign to discredit us,” Williams said. “You need to support the media. Our existence is very precarious right now.”

Rascoe agreed. “The biggest threat to the press is the tearing down of its reputation. If people don’t believe you and the story you tell, they won’t act.”

Educating the public about journalists’ work could increase the public’s trust of the media, Rascoe said. For example, people need to learn that reporters sometimes have to attribute quotes to individuals without giving their names in order to protect confidentiality in an ongoing investigation. People also need to understand the difference between a reporter, who writes objective news stories, and a columnist, who writes persuasive opinion pieces, she said.

Politicians and public officials who lie or mislead the press pose another challenge to media credibility.

“Corey Lewandowski [Donald Trump’s former campaign manager] said he had no issue with lying to the press,” Rascoe said. “But if you lie to the press, you lie to the public. It’s not illegal for a public official to lie to the press, but they are misleading the public [when they do].”

Journalists can’t take someone at his or her word—not even the president, she continued. 

“There’s been a shift towards the press saying the president’s statement was false,” Rascoe said. “Because President Trump doesn’t respond to fact checks, you have to make sure what he said is true. Trump said ‘this person committed treason’ is not a fair headline. You have to fact check it. People will believe it because he’s the president.”   

A free press must report the facts, Rascoe and Williams agreed.  

“The biggest threat to journalism and the world is the threat to facts,” Williams said. “If there’s no such thing as fact, there’s no such thing as persuasion.”

Rascoe and Williams will return to campus to participate in the moderated panel discussion “Leading with Truth: Journalism as a Catalyst for Social Change” at 4:30 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 29, in the Jepson Alumni Center. Online registration opens Jan. 8.