A Matter of Trust

As the longtime anchorman of CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite was the trusted face and voice for a generation of Americans—a duty he took seriously. So when reports started to come in from Dallas on November 22, 1963, that President John F. Kennedy had died, he delayed making the shocking announcement for a time.

“Walter really held off on coming out with that right away, even if some other news organizations were reporting it, because he wanted to make sure that it was truly factual,” says journalism professor Dr. Battinto Batts. “He wanted to make sure that it was right. He wanted to make sure that if he said it, that people were going to take it as being the facts. And so he felt a sense of responsibility to make sure that it was true before he announced it on air.”

Times have changed in the near-60 years since, with much so-called “news” these days often little more than speculation, supposition or rumor. While Batts believes there are still those who work to Cronkite’s standards— which he upholds as the dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University (ASU)—he recognizes that “there are people who are more concerned with getting the information out there quickly and don’t maybe uphold that same level of standard that Walter had.”

Indeed, he talks about what he calls the “crisis” that needs to be addressed in regards to misinformation and disinformation, “and then a lack of trust in media, a lack of trust in just basic facts.” While part of that involves equipping the next generation of newsmen and women, as he is doing, it also means helping the public become more “media literate.”

It matters, because people make decisions based on what they believe they know—for instance, he cites the lack of trust some people have regarding the COVID-19 vaccine because of what they have read and heard, which may not be true.

Primary sources

The public needs to be helped to learn to distinguish between facts and falsehoods. “What is factual information? What are good sources of information? What are the best places to get accurate, unbiased, unfiltered information?” Batts asks. “That’s first and foremost, because we have to do that before we really even can be able to be as successful as we want to be in terms of doing journalism.”

Part of the answer is understanding your media consumption habits, he says— from where do you learn about the world? For example, some of the first-year students he spoke with recently cited social media platforms as their primary sources, from Twitter and Instagram to Snapchat.

“There’s nothing wrong with the platforms per se,” he says, “but there’s just a lot of stuff out there—a lot of good stuff, a lot of bad stuff—and we have to work to teach them how to ascertain the difference between what’s good and what’s bad and what’s fake news or factual.”

Batts would also like to see people who have what he terms “social capital”—some measure of influence in a community or network—shown how to use media well to get their message out. He has in mind church leaders, community organization leaders, and those active in homeowner and neighborhood associations.

“We have to think about ways of delivering those types of tools and resources to these people who have this social capital in their communities. It can’t be a class where it takes them a semester to get through. No, how can we provide them with quick tools that they can use to be able to inform people…?”

Raised by two educators who stressed the importance of learning, Batts studied journalism because he “wanted to be a part of a trusted source.” Jobs with five newspapers between Virginia and Florida followed, and then an unexpected invitation to be an adjunct professor.

“I’d never seen myself being a teacher,” he recalls, “had never taught before, but I went into the classroom and absolutely loved it.” Batts taught at Hampton University and became director of journalism strategies at the Scripps Howard Foundation— which promotes journalism education and literacy—before taking on his role at ASU last year.

He counts it an honor to be the first person of color to lead the program named for such “an iconic figure… If Walter Cronkite said it, people took it as factual, as the gospel.

We have to work to teach the difference between what’s good and what’s bad.


Mentoring advice

Despite the suspicion many people have of the news media, Batts remains optimistic. “I get asked a question all the time, ‘Is journalism dying?’” he says. “No, journalism is not done. What’s happening is that the business model for journalism is evolving. And it’s really actually going back to more of what it used to be, when you had entrepreneurs who really saw the value in serving a community or serving an audience with information and then built products around them.”

By way of example he names John H. Johnson, the celebrated founder of Ebony and Jet magazines. “He was an entrepreneur, he was a businessman, but he saw the value in really delivering a message to an audience.”

For all the negativity swirling around the news media, “there’s a real interest in journalism,” according to Batts. Enrollment at the Cronkite School is up, he says, with a growing interest in journalism as a second career.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who are career switchers, who may have had a career in engineering or who may have had a career in law or who may have had a career in business, but found that they were really passionate about journalism and communications, and then they’re coming to us now to get a master’s degree in investigative journalism or to get a master’s degree in communications, because they found that they just have a true passion for wanting to connect to people.”

For those seeking a waymaker or a mentor, he advises don’t be afraid to ask for help. “Inevitably, I have found when I’ve sought this out, that people are willing to give you something, some more than others,” he says. “I’ve never had anybody who I’ve asked for guidance and support that they haven’t given me at least something to think about, and some have invested more in me than others, but there’s always something you come away with.”

If you are committed to growing, “people will see that… you will be noticed, and you’d be surprised at who’s watching you… The cream has a way of showing itself and the people who are looking for the next level of talent to develop, they’ve got their eye on you. “So just keep doing well where you are, with what you’re doing, because opportunity will come.”

I really have to give honor to my parents and my grandparents, who played a significant role in just molding and shaping me, and making me open to learning. My paternal grandfather only had a fifth-grade education, but he was a serial entrepreneur; he started a cab company, he was a portrait artist. He supported the family very, very well because he was an entrepreneur and thinker, and so it’s his mindset that really I’ve taken on in my life.