AJC politics reporter Mark Niesse (left) interviews Gabriel Sterling, implementation manager for Georgia’s new voting system with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Opinion: To trust us, you must know us; let’s get acquainted in 2020

Ahem … Hello! I’m Leroy.

And I’m a journalist.

Chances are we’ve never met.

Chances are you’ve never met any journalist. Or that you’ve spoken to a reporter, editor or photographer in any capacity.

A recent survey reports that about 80 percent of Americans say they’ve never spoken to a journalist.

That means you’ve probably never been interviewed. Never exchanged pleasantries with a reporter in your community doing their job. Probably never had a pollster call your home to ask you what you think about an issue. Or which candidate you’re supporting.

There are fewer of us working nowadays, so it’s unlikely a journalist lives in your neighborhood. Even if one does, you might not know it. Save for a few highly visible faces on television, we journalists are remarkably anonymous.

You don’t see us. We blend in; many of us (like me) kinda like it that way.

There’s one problem with that. This lack of connection — and the general anonymity of newspaper journalists — makes it harder for you to trust us.

That sobering news was delivered here recently by Trusting News, an industry nonprofit group that has spent the past few years studying how media is perceived.

We have a trust problem. Not necessarily The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But the media has a whole is grappling with a historical and generational trend toward media distrust, Trusting News has concluded through its work.

To help, the fine folks at Trusting News are partnering with newsrooms across the country to provide journalists with the tools and strategies to “take responsibility for actively demonstrating credibility and earning trust.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has become a partner. We are working with Trusting News to examine our relationships with you, our community of readers. The AJC, Trusting News advises, must make sure it isn’t, unwittingly, leaving unattended the kinds of communication gaps that can undermine the work we do for you.

Among the strategies Trusting News encourages newspapers to adopt is to put greater effort into making ourselves familiar.

Trusting News also encourages newsrooms to:

  • Talk about our mission and to make sure readers understand what we are committed to and why;
  • Explain our decisions and let readers in on how we make our choices on what we prioritize in news coverage and why;
  • Create and monitor multiple “feedback loops” where we hold a continual conversation with the public and where we are available to take your praise and criticism. Both make us better.

A good place to start, and perhaps the easiest, is making you familiar with us.

The AJC newsroom has about 150 journalists. All, with the exception of our Washington, D.C., correspondent, are based here in Georgia. Nearly all live here in metro Atlanta.

We devote nearly all of our resources to covering the core metro counties that comprise Atlanta.

We’re your neighbors. Like you, we pay taxes, we entrust our public school systems with our children and we expect an ambulance to get to our homes in a reasonable amount of time should we need one. If government is wasting money, if schools are failing, if emergency responders are ineffective, it affects us, too.

When we don’t make clear that we are equal stakeholders in our community’s success, then it’s more likely we stand on shaky ground when it comes to earning your trust.

When you don’t know us and understand our mission, it’s easier for you, dear reader, to buy into the worst assumptions about what we do. There are critics of our work who render us hopelessly compromised. According to the Trusting News survey, some of you think our news coverage decisions are guided by our own financial interests. Some think we are committed to promoting a political point of view. Some think our efforts are aimed solely at making people look bad.

Our desires are not that simple and cynical.

We want metro Atlanta and Georgia to flourish. To do so requires dealing in truth, trading in facts, acting in good faith and regarding your fellow citizen, even the ones with whom you disagree, as a co-interested partner in this enterprise we call democracy. Yes, we spend much of our time pointing out problems. We do so because it’s the first step at arriving at solutions.

Allow me to finish my introduction.

I live in Lawrenceville.

I moved to metro Atlanta nine years ago to take a job at the AJC.

Save for a couple of furloughs, I’ve been a full-time, working journalist since 1994.

I was born in Greenville, South Carolina, a place where most conversations center around either church, football or politics.

My job here is deputy managing editor. That means I am in charge of most of the reporting teams that produce daily news: crime and public safety, local government, education at every level and state and federal government.

It doesn’t make me an expert in anything. But it requires me to ask tons of questions and demand answers. I’m pretty adept at juggling and I know how to handle a complaint. The job demands those skills.

And since we’re being transparent, I think it’s helpful to know this: leading a newsroom is difficult work.

We don’t always get it right. And when we don’t we will own our mistakes and work tirelessly to correct them.

It’s a matter of trust.

Deputy Managing Editor Leroy Chapman Jr. is in charge of teams that report on transportation, crime and public safety, education, local, state and federal government and politics. Email him at Leroy.Chapman@ajc.com. Follow him on Twitter @AJCLeroyChapman. 

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