There’s a famous photo of Lyndon B. Johnson sitting despondently, with his head in his hands after he learned that, in a rare moment of editorializing, the venerable CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite characterized the Vietnam War as all but lost.
For nineteen tumultuous years, millions of Americans had tuned in every night to hear Walter Cronkite report on the state of affairs. When Walter Cronkite spoke, America listened.
Do our readers trust us that much?
Trust is a multilayered thing built over time. Here are a few qualities that Cronkite had that writers who seek to cultivate trust should consider:
As writers, we have to speak the truth as we know it, no matter our genre. Sometimes this requires that we show parts of ourselves we’d prefer to keep hidden, including perhaps our vulnerabilities.
As writers, we must recognize our biases, acknowledge what we don’t know, and avoid distortion or otherwise lift things from context. We have to separate fact from opinion, and give credit where credit is due.
We must also present a consistent level of quality. If we have cultivated a voice, that voice has to be there as resonant as ever. If we have adopted a position or a theme, our treatment of it has to build in a direction a reader has come to expect.
Cronkite set the bar for eloquent, measured, and calm delivery—exactly what you’d want from a news anchor. Even in the most emotional of times, his voice held the ground and in this, his listeners felt safe, which is fertile territory for building trust. The anchorman cultivated an effective voice—a perfect fit for delivering the news—but any writer needs to do the same. Fiction or nonfiction, whatever our purpose or goal, we too have to consider our delivery. Our tone and voice must fit the work and be such that the reader is able to absorb our words.
If we want our readers’ trust, we can’t do anything halfway. If we’re bored, or our emotional life is a mess, or we are writing by rote—these things will show. If we have lost faith in the value of what we do, this too will show. A good writing day or a bad one, it comes down to caring—and doing. Perhaps we need to take a break. Perhaps we need a vacation. But nothing goes out until it’s as perfect as we can make it.
Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of Walter Cronkite widely cited in reverse image search including at http://www.worldculturepictorial.com/blog/archive/all/2009/7/19; LBJ at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, Life Magazine, November 4, 1966; General Westmoreland in the foreground, http://faculty.smu.edu/dsimon/Change-Viet2.html among other sources.