December 6th, 2009
07:25 AM ET

50on50: Don't trust The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children


Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

My campaign to destroy the 18-49 demo is based in part on the wisdom I’ve gained as I approach my 50th birthday. There are people in this world you can trust. And there are people you can’t trust. The fact that you cannot trust The Royal Society For The Prevention of Cruelty To Children (The RSPCC) is a lesson for all of us, whatever our age, whatever our profession. It’s a particularly important lesson for journalists.

Just to be clear, there are a number of reputable organizations with names that sound similar to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

There's the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

There's the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

And I imagine there are others I've missed. So who could blame anyone for being favorably inclined to The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. For all I know, somewhere in this great big world there is a legitimate, respectable, RSPCC.

But not the one of which I'm aware.

I'll get to the evil RSPCC in a moment. But first let me tell you what I've learned from a quarter century in journalism.

You can't necessarily judge an individual or organization's agenda – you can't judge whether a source of information is reliable – based solely on its name. I've lost count of how many organizations that hold themselves out as a potential news sources call themselves non-profit and non-partisan independent research organizations. But that description, on its own, doesn't really help us understand whether the information we get from them is reliable. That takes more digging.

Same with individuals who have fancy titles and stellar reputations.

Bernie Madoff was considered a reliable source by much of the financial establishment, until he wasn't.

Harry Markopolos, who spent a decade trying to sound the alarm on Madoff, was an extremely reliable source who was ignored, until he wasn't.

Every single story of importance in the news today, from health care, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, as we approach Copenhagen, the issue of climate change and the human population's carbon footprint, requires us to determine as journalists, and as citizens, who we can trust.

Which brings me back to The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

My oldest daughter, who was 9 at the time, was the one who taught me I could not trust this group. The group, I began discovering on page 55 of Roald Dahl's children's classic, was a coalition of witches whose sole goal was to kill every child in England by lacing irresistible candies with a formula that turns the children into mice. Mouse traps would do the rest of the job.

Dahl's fictional masterpiece, "The Witches," teaches all of us a lesson we keep learning the hard way. A nice sounding title doesn't necessarily reflect the underlying goals of an organization, or the reliability of an individual. Sometimes it does. But sometimes it doesn't. And when it doesn't, we can get burned.

Because from the time we're children we wrestle with the challenge of who to trust.

Who is a "safe side" adult, as one of the best videos out there tries to help us and our children determine.

How do we know?

Who is a reliable source, we journalists ask ourselves every day. How do we know?

The answer is usually based on some combination of the source's credentials, his or her past reliability, and our own knowledge of the subject matter at hand. It also involves the reservoir of experiences that build over years in our guts.

And so, when we come across stories that trigger controversy, like war, and health care, and climate change, we look to our experience, and knowledge, and guts, to determine the most trustworthy voices.

By the time you have 50 years of life experience, you are hopefully a better judge of who to trust than earlier on in your journey.

That's one reason I'm convinced the 18-49 demo is about to die as the golden target audience. Age 49 is an insane cutoff point for any valued audience.

It's not that you can't trust younger people. It's that people with more experience tend to have more acute radar for detecting who can be trusted and who can't. In other words, good BS meters skew older. They have more influence in the community. We want them in our audience.

Of course, we know the elderly are often the most vulnerable targets of scams. Sometimes the older you get, the harder you want to believe that good news is true.
That's something the very old and the very young can have in common.

I believe there are more good people out there than there are witches, so to speak.

I believe there are more people you CAN trust than people you CANNOT.

But I know it takes time to build trust.

It takes time to figure out who we CAN trust in our own lives.

It takes time to know who we journalists can rely on as reliable sources of information.

I know it takes time. I'm about to turn 50. Trust me.

Filed under: Michael Schulder
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Lori

    I believe that the more people you have met and known the better judge of character you are.

    December 6, 2009 at 7:57 pm |
  2. Lori

    You are right.

    December 6, 2009 at 7:55 pm |
  3. Jeni

    I've got a year on you, Michael. I'm sorry to say that as I'm getting older, it is much harder to trust. I don't want to mistrust people. It's against my nature, but to survive these days, I find that I must keep up that wall...until I think I know for sure. I would like to return to the childlike innocence I once held. But I cannot. Unemployment, no insurance, inability to even donate to those less fortunate. But now I am the one in that category.

    December 6, 2009 at 5:29 pm |
  4. Tim Gibson

    The trust issue has becoming increasly difficult in the past few years Michael.

    Who do we trust when we have done all the "right" things in our lives to prepare for our golden years, that point beyond 50, and because of that trust we were left blindsided by the downward spiral of our economy. Who then do we trust, the same political leaders who gave us the ride here, or do we rely more on that gut, that instinct of fight or flight that is natural. It is by learning to listen to ourselves, observe our surroundings, that we find the most prized person of trust. Ourselves.

    And 50 I have learned is a award in life. It means you made it through the jungle.

    December 6, 2009 at 7:55 am |