Stephen Adler: Winning the war on journalism

In a fireside chat at the GEN Summit 2018, Stephen Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, talked about fake news laws, at what point fact-checking turns into nitpicking, and what journalists need to do in order to rebuild trust. The conversation was led by Jim Roberts, editor-in-chief of Cheddar. The main ideas from the session have been compiled below.

Jim Roberts and Stephen Adler

On Trump

When Lesley Stahl asked Trump why he continues to attack the press, he allegedly replied, ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you’.

According to Adler, journalists are not handling Trump’s attacks in a productive way.

‘Journalists think that by becoming resistance they’re making things better but they’re actually making it worse’, he said.

On Fake News Laws

Adler said that the US is no longer playing a positive role in defending a free press, which will make it easier for authoritarian regimes to criminalise news.

According to him, when the President says that journalists are bad, the floodgates for governments to pass anti-fake news laws are opened.

21 journalists have been imprisoned this year alone for disseminating fake news, according to Adler.

On fact checking

Roberts referenced the tension between the administration and the news media in the US, which makes news organisations feel that it is their job to fact check everything the President says. Roberts mentioned that the Washington Post runs a tally of Trump’s misrepresentations. He said that the last time he checked it was at 3000. Where will this lead?

Adler said that fact checking has been largely ineffective in changing people’s minds about what’s going on. This doesn’t mean that it’s not important to get facts right.

‘My perspective is to cover things that matter and get them right. If something is important, do correct it’, he said.

Adler believes that everybody is trying to do right thing, but fact checking things people say should not be a journalist’s highest calling. ‘It’s also besides the point’, he said. Nitpicking does not address underlying issues, such as immigration policy and its impact.

The focus instead should be on producing factual information, as this helps people make smart decisions, said Adler.

On Myanmar

Two Burmese journalists working on the stories of the slaughter of ten Rohingya Muslim men and boys were arrested in December 2017 and will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. While it is clear that the journalists were set up, the case continues and the reporters remain in prison.

Adler said that global involvement and people tweeting against the imprisonment has been helpful. ‘We’re not against the Myanmar government, We’re not accusing them of genocide’, said Adler. ‘We like people to be treated fairly’.

On technology

‘Technology works in favour of trustworthyness if we do it well’, said Adler. Technology is able to do a lot of things that would normally require massive amounts of time.

‘The goal is to combine human and machines’, said Adler. ‘Tech is not a threat for journalism. If done the right way, it gives us more time to be more thoughtful and analytical’.

On transparency and humility

Adler said that news organisations are often boasting about how trustworthy they are, to the point that it has almost become part of their ad campaign. The narrative is that news organisations are great and those oppressing journalists are horrible. According to Adler, this is the wrong approach. ‘We need to focus on the positive effects journalism has’, he said.

Adler said that there is a certain level of humility required to do great journalism. Journalists don’t talk a lot about humility. They don’t talk about how hard it is to get things right and how often they get it wrong.

‘People don’t like this confidence; this arrogance’, said Adler. ‘I happen to think were doing something wonderfully good, but we also need to recognise the fallibility of what we do’.

According to Adler, people would think higher of journalists if they admitted they were wrong.

Transparency is incredibly important, said Adler. Reuters created Backstory, which lets readers find out how journalists reported on a particular story.

‘This makes it clear that we’re a profession, we have standards and that helps build credibility’, he said.