Context Clues in the Era of #MeToo

Against all odds and much prevailing wisdom, the news audience trusts the news media. Here's why that's a problem.

I have a message for our nation’s journalists, and not to be overly melodramatic, but it’s very important that they receive and understand it. Like, potentially “survival of the republic” type important. Possibly “survival of the human race” level.


The message is this:

Your audience trusts you.

Impossible as it seems, unbelievable as it may be, the audience for news trusts the people giving it to them.

While this may seem incredible, it’s actually as reliable an axiom as “Trump supporters support Trump.” See, it’s not that everybody believes everything that’s printed or said under the banner of headline news. But people who don’t believe CNN, with rare but notable exceptions, don’t watch CNN, as people who don’t believe Fox don’t tend to watch Fox, and so on.

And it’s not that watchers of MSNBC or readers of the Washington Post or whatever simply passively absorb everything that their chosen news source tells them, uncritically and unthinkingly.

But the fact that they keep going back to the same well for water means that at a base level, they trust the water source to keep giving them water.

And that’s fine. The news wouldn’t work as a business without this kind of trust! The problem arises when journalists and editors and the institutions behind them forget —or pretend not to believe — that their audience does trust them.

By way of explaining further, I’m going to refer to a specific example and it’s not because it is a unique or egregious example but rather because it is a fresh and stark one.

Via this tweet from Michael Hobbes:

Michael links to a blog post on Defector, the sports-and-culture website formed by exiles from Deadspin, started because — and this is a direct quote from their about page — “media is fucked now.”

And the linked post by Camille Bromley, filed under the very meta heading of “Journalismism”, chronicles a bit of that upped-fuckery for us.

If you want a detailed recap of the situation Bromley describes, as the post does a better job of doing it. The short version is that there was what we might call a Toobin Incident during a video staff meeting for The Believer, a literary arts journal of sorts published out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Suffice it to say that Josh Wolf Shenk turned the staff meeting into a “staff” meeting, so to speak, and a few months later he and the company parted ways.

The LA Times, reporting on the chain of events, reported this:

According to Ira Silverberg, a literary agent and editor who is acting as Shenk’s advisor, Shenk was soaking in a bathtub with Epsom salts during the meeting to alleviate nerve pain caused by fibromyalgia.

He had chosen a virtual background to mask his location and had worn a mesh shirt. When Shenk’s computer battery died, he got up to plug it in, believing the camera was off. But the video kept running. According to Silverberg, Shenk reported the incident immediately.

I could do a whole spiel on how even this “innocent” explanation does not remove responsibility for the lapse from Shenk, and Bromley’s post mentions how this sort of thing was a culmination of a pattern of similar “lapses” from Shenk, but that’s neither here nor there.

Bromley is an editor at The Believer, writing for Defector from the point of view of a staffer on the call who already had concerns about Shenk and who sought accountability for his lapses and transgressions and was stymied. She had this to say about the LAT reporting:

The article did not quote anyone else who had been present, and so there was little room for Shenk’s exposure to be interpreted as anything more than an unfortunate mistake. Staffers were incensed. “This article is all he needs to get himself another job where he can endanger people,” a colleague wrote to me. This was the first we were hearing about a bathtub, and several other details in the article seemed to be acting as convenient distractions; for instance, the “mesh shirt” Shenk was supposedly wearing had appeared on screen to be a normal-looking white t-shirt.  

More puzzling, I knew that the LA Times reporter, Dorany Pineda, had spoken to several sources on staff. When I asked her what the deal was with her article, she informed me that while she had heard negative allegations against Shenk, she and her editors had decided not to include them. Readers, she felt, could understand that Shenk’s account of his actions was absurd.


I’ve added the bold emphasis there, because this is what I’m talking about when I say that we need journalists to understand that their audience trusts them.

We heard so many times during the too-long reign of Donald Trump that it wasn’t the business of straight news reporters to tell us who was lying, they only reported who said what and trusted us to recognize the obvious, absurd, and odious lies for what they were. “We don’t make the news and we don’t tell people what to think, we just report what happened.” is the typical refrain, along with “We can do more than lay out the facts and trust that readers will arrive at the obvious conclusion.”

But to the extent that their audience trusts them to tell them what happened, it is a problem when they will not report that something is absurd or obviously false, or will not draw the natural inference or obvious conclusion.

Sure, to a trained journalist, the distinction between “This is what happened.” and “This is what a friend of the accused says happened.” is obvious and important.

But the average news consumer is not a trained journalist, and is counting on the people who are trained journalists to report all the news is news, all the news that’s fit to print, and so if the only account of events presented comes from one source, that’s a sign that this source was found credible.

If accounts by other people who were present and might have thoughts about what happened aren’t presented as news, then it can be inferred — in fact, basically must be informed by any reader who trusts the journalist to be honest with them — that those accounts either do not differ meaningfully from the one presented, or were not found credible enough to be printed.

If Shenk’s proxy explanation for his exposure seems absurd on its face but a trained journalist is reporting it matter-of-factly as though it were credible and normal, that lends it credibility and normality.

Or as Bromley puts it, more succinctly:

Relying on the public to see through the narrative offered by your own article strikes me as an odd strategy. And in fact, several commenters on the article seized on the fact that nothing negative from the staff had come out against Shenk in order to defend him. Predictably, the article fed right into the Twitter controversy machine, prompting a misguided debate as to whether or not a man should lose his job over an embarrassing mistake.

Emphasis, as usual, is mine: “Relying on the public to see through the narrative offered by your own article strikes me as an odd strategy.”

That’s it.

That’s it in a nutshell.

I think if you scratch the surface of this phenomenon, you will find what underlies it is not trust in the judgment of readers to arrive at the right conclusion but rather a mixture of fear of offending the powerful and privileged and a desire to protect one’s peers or social betters.

If they only tell Shenk’s side of the story then they don’t have to worry about how he or any lawyers he may happen to have retained will respond to their reporting. Nobody who exchanges holiday greetings or invitations with him or any of his close friends has to worry about burning bridges. Nobody in the chain of decision-making at the LA Times who may have their own “lapses” around underlings has to worry about a precedent that the paper cares what the ~*little people*~ think about their bosses’ misconduct.

But let’s forget that and take journalism at its word, that this is simply about trust and respect.

Well, there’s the problem.

News media, against all odds and our better judgment, we do trust you… to paraphrase Mark Twain, not all over, but in spots.

And unfortunately but necessarily, it’s in those spots where we trust you that we come to you for the news, to find out what happened.

We don’t need you to tell us what to think about it, but we are social animals and if someone we trust gives us no signs that something is wrong or out of the ordinary, eons of evolution and decades of life experience have primed us to accept that nothing is wrong or out of the ordinary.

If you leave a voice out of your story, that signals to your reader that in your trusted judgment this voice had nothing credible or important to say.

If you center a voice in your story, that signals to your reader that in your trusted judgment this voice and what it had to say was credible and important.

Please, news media. I am begging you. Assume the best of your readers and viewers and listeners all you want, but understand that if they are listening to you then they are listening to you. Your audience trusts you! If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be your audience anymore!