A matter of trust

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s foundational to everything we do, from earliest childhood to later years — we (have to!) place our trust in medicine and health procedures, in the men and women who pilot airplanes and drive subway trains and schoolbuses, in the chefs and cooks who prepare our meals when we eat away from home — and the health inspectors whose role it is to make sure it is safe.

If you live in the U.S. and follow news — which some of you don’t — a big story of late has been a shocking, relentless barrage of lies from a newly elected Republican congressman from Long Island, George Santos.

From The Daily Beast:

The perplexing series of alleged lies from George Santos, the Republican congressman-elect from Long Island under investigation by countystate and federal prosecutors, have continued to roll in this week—with each “embellishment” as shocking as the last.

Among the new claims under scrutiny in the last 24 hours: Santos’ high school education, his claim to be half-Black, a claim that his family’s Jewish last name was Zabrovsky, and that “9/11 claimed” his mother’s life after she’d “fled socialism” in Europe.

Basically everything he told voters is a lie. And…he will still be sworn into office.

HOW?

I think about trust all the time because trust in journalists — my career since university — is very very low.

This causes endless problems if voters believe a pathological liar like Santos — but not the reporters who uncovered those lies.

It’s a problem when people shriek “Fake news!” when they hear things they don’t want to, like COVID running rampant still.

It’s a problem when we keep sending our hard-earned tax dollars to governments that don’t do what they said they would, further eroding our trust in them, which, for Americans especially, seems subterranean at best.

From the moment a writer proposes a story, there’s a level of trust between them and their editor, whether they’re on staff or freelance. A staffer can be disciplined, suspended or fired for lying while a freelancer can lose access to a coveted market; The New York Times, for which I’ve written more than 100 stories, periodically sends every freelancer its long and detailed ethics code, and those who break it are out.

But there are legendary stories of lying reporters and their names are known to those of us in the industry, like Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, all of whom were — of course — much lauded for brining in powerful stories and every ambitious editor wants material like that. Until they turn out to be false.

Every time I ask a source to speak to me, they generally agree quickly and kindly, which, in itself is a sign if trust that I’ll behave professionally; my website makes clear I have a long and solid career in place as testament to that. Only once, and it was interesting, was I told “oh hell no!” when I tried to get sources, by an agency that helps teens on Riker’s Island accused of crimes. Only after pleading my case to them face to face did I win the interviews, which are in my first book “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.” I’m proud of having won these stories, as they were untold and powerful and I’ve never forgotten them — and I’ve done thousands of interviews in my career.

That took trust.

We live in an era of easy, quick and profitable manipulation — of words, ideas, images. A few years ago the news agency Reuters invited a group of New York journalists (arguably pretty savvy) to listen to a powerful and frightening presentation about how easy it now is to alter images, whether video or still. It was deeply sobering to know how much energy is spent trying to sort out the garbage. My husband, Jose, is a photo editor for The New York Times, and it’s also his job — like every news editor now — to sniff out fake images. Staff photographers and longtime freelancers have earned their trust, Many photos arrive through a photo agency like the AP, Getty and and Reuters, to name three major ones — by the time they’re looked at for publication, they’ve been vetted by many editors who’ve already vetted their photographers.

Trust requires a long unbroken chain.

In 1997, as I think I’ve written here before, I became the victim — one of many! — of a skilled and determined con man who had duped many people in Chicago, done time and moved to New York where he picked up again. I won’t get into all the grim details, but it was a lesson for me, for anyone, in what behaviors inspire our trust and why.

He was physically attractive.

He dressed well.

He was very intelligent and engaging.

He was (of course!) initially charming — later creepy and threatening.

I fell quite ill the day before I was to fly from New York to Sydney Australia alone, hoping to research my first book — he brought me a pot of homemade soup.

How can one — when should one — mistrust kindness?

Read The Gift of Fear, a must-read book for every girl and woman — which includes charm and niceness as warning signs.

Are you wary by nature or experience?

13 thoughts on “A matter of trust

  1. I’m with VJ on this, and it’s not just limited to the person, but to everything they say. I don’t believe in people without agendas and, sorry to say, that includes journalists. I think you’re great and I’m sorry to toss you in that dirty smelly bucket, but the more people I exempt from scrutiny, the more likely I am to be deceived. Please note the word “Scrutiny”. You are not being judged.

    1. I think it’s cynical to assume every journalist arrives with an agenda — i.e. a bias. We are hardly angels and some outlets skew very much to the left or right but they’re pretty obvious about it.

  2. I’m not saying everything someone says or does is to advance their agenda, or even that agendas are one to a customer. Is an agenda the same thing as a bias? I see biases as being driven by opinion, yours, mine or someone else’s. They’re easy and comfortable and you don’t have to do anything but think someone else is wrong, sad or stupid. An agenda is more a call to action. “This is what we want or need, this is what we need to have it and this is what we must do get it”. These can be the words of a just, upright person with a laudable goal, or of an insidious demagogue bent on destruction. This principle can, and should, be applied to people at all levels of society. Not just journalists, not just anyone. Who doesn’t want anything? The most fabulously wealthy person on Earth could want a friend who will talk to him honestly. A young man, stuck in a nowhere town full of dull ass people wants to move to move to the city so his life can begin. The preacher railing against women’s rights and the books in the public library? I don’t know what that dude’s problem is, but he’s definitely got one and he’s working hard at solving it. Everybody’s got one, but it doesn’t make you a bad person; or a good one for that matter. Good post and comments, thank you.

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