Shock finding: the public decides that it can trust us

In an amazing year for stories, a whole new relationship has evolved between media outlets and their consumers, believes CNN's Chris Cramer
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Eight months into 2005, most of us who are responsible for international news coverage still wonder at the scale and intensity of the major breaking stories so far this year. We have had the aftermath of the Asia tsunami, the death of the Pope and the election of the new pontiff, elections in Iraq coupled with a seemingly intractable conflict in that country, and freak flooding in Mumbai that killed more than 1,000 people.

Any notion that we would be granted a "silly season", a period short on meaningful news, was shattered by the worst ever terror attack in Britain, followed by a second scare, after which came an equivalent horror in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt. All this with still four months to go in the year.

It often takes something as profound as a terrorist attack to remind us why we are in business in the first place, which is to inform, to explain, to place in context - to render the significant as interestingly as we can and, crucially, to provide a vital public service.

We should take comfort from the fact that media organisations, by and large, have performed an extraordinary public service during their coverage of these momentous events. The cynicism which can pervade our industry has given way to a sense of purpose that what we do is important, after all.

Yet research tells us that these days audiences and readers have a pretty low opinion of journalists. They blame a catalogue of errors, misjudgements and plain bad journalism.

But as we saw in the days after the tsunami and most recently in London, there is a new readiness by the public to embrace the media as an outlet for pictures and video footage which they themselves have shot. The digital age - in which video cameras and mobile picture phones are common place - now brings the public and the media outlets that much closer together.

News networks that have a strong web presence, such as the BBC and CNN, are seeing a greater synergy between the public and the media. Eyewitness accounts, pictures and appeals for help in locating missing friends and relatives are now part of the story. Even the "news ticker" at the bottom of the screen has, in some cases, become the home of personal messages connected with major events as they unfold.

As I mark my 40th year in journalism, the reported lack of trust in the media might have been particularly dispiriting. But this new interaction between the public and the media, and recent encounters with overseas journalists, have increased my confidence in the future direction of this industry.

In Kenya, in June, I met journalists from 40 nations entering for the CNN-MultiChoice African Journalist 2005 awards. This is the 10th year of an awards programme, in which hundreds of writers and broadcasters from that frequently troubled continent compete for peer recognition.

Africa's journalists have no time for self-pity. They were quick to remind me that the profession they had chosen was hard, with very few rewards, frequently little support from their bosses and often a seriously dangerous environment in which to operate. One of the awards we handed out was posthumous - given to the widow and daughter of Deyda Hydara, AFP correspondent in Banjul, Gambia and co-editor of The Point newspaper. He was shot and killed by unknown assassins in December 2004, driving home after putting the newspaper to bed.

They were equally quick to criticise the affluent Western media, and me as its representative, for lazy journalism, and for a continuing focus on the banal.

Back in Atlanta last week, I was again brought down to earth as young broadcasters from Israel, Lebanon, Poland, South Korea, Ukraine, Pakistan and China gathered to take part in the International Professional Programme, a thrice-yearly training seminar for CNN overseas affiliates. As the course ended, they pleaded for privileged media organisations such as the BBC and CNN to remember their public service obligations to the world.

They, too, accused the so-called mainstream media of a preoccupation with packaging over content, form over substance. They cited too much coverage of minor crime, lifestyle trends, reality television and pop celebrities such as Michael Jackson.

The youngsters were unanimous in their passion to learn more about editorial integrity, objectivity, media transparency and investigative reporting, though some were sceptical about their abilities to practise this to the full after returning to their host countries. To hear their outspoken views and those of their colleagues in Africa was a humbling experience.

Chris Cramer is managing director of CNN International. He is based in Atlanta, USA

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