Trust and Journalism, 2.0: We’ve Identified the Problem, Now Let’s Collaborate on the Solution(s)

A pop-up newsletter on trust and journalism tracked the myriad right-minded but disparate efforts underway, making plain the need to bring them together

The customs agent at the Toronto airport was friendly enough. He let me keep the apple I’d bought at the St. Lawrence Market after I promised I’d eat it before boarding my flight back to Los Angeles. Just don’t bring food in here again, he said. Then he asked what had brought me to Toronto, and when I said a journalism conference he looked up from his screen. “Ah, we better keep an eye on you then,” he said, and winked before sending me on my way.

As I walked to my gate I wondered if this was the Canadian politeness I’d heard about from my Airbnb host. He was from the Basque region of Spain, had lived in Toronto for three years, and told me Canadians are “very correct” in their interaction with outsiders like him. But they’ll also let you know what they think of you, albeit courteously.

That feeling of outsiderness is something journalists are grappling with a lot these days, and it was a recurring theme at the confab I’d attended. It was also a part of the reason that last summer I’d launched JTrust, a pop-up newsletter focused on trust and journalism. The question of diminishing trust in news and those who deliver it is nothing new, and smart, thoughtful people have been grappling with it for quite some time. But last year marked a cultural crescendo and I found myself wanting a centralized place that tracked and curated all the trust and journalism doings.

There was so much going on in so many different quarters — meet-ups and write-ups and research and tools and online discussions — with new efforts seemingly appearing every day. Much of the work seemed complementary, but I didn’t see much coordination, or even a place where all the things were collected and organized. Why isn’t anyone doing that? I wondered. I put the question to Sally Lehrman, senior director of the journalism ethics program at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Screen grab from a video animation on the Trust Project website.

Lehrman is one of the OGs tackling the thorny questions of trust and journalism. In 2015 she began building the Trust Project, working with scores of newsrooms to create a set of digital standards called “Trust Indicators” to help identify and surface high quality reporting from reliable news sites. I’d first met Sally and learned about the Trust Project at a reunion of the JSK Fellowships at Stanford in the summer of 2016 where she shared her impressive work at a session I moderated.

We’re all so busy, but I think it could accelerate the work and avoid duplication. — Sally Lehrman, The Trust Project

Sally agreed on the need for some sort of collaboration. “I’d like to at least create a digital space where we pull together materials from the various orgs working on trust,” she wrote me in an email last summer. “I’ve also proposed creating a system for more human interaction about the work, as in regular calls or a few meetings a year. We’re all so busy, but I think it could accelerate the work and avoid duplication.”

Not surprisingly Sally was completely swamped, and she’d already asked about funding for such a thing but other projects had taken priority. I’d just come to the end of a full-time job and was ostensibly working on a difficult book revision. But the failing trust in journalism had an urgency to it that compelled me (and also enabled me to put off that revision for a bit). Why not launch a pop-up newsletter on trust in journalism? And so, JTrust was born.

Having granted myself permission, I binged. For days on end I immersed myself in news of trust and journalism, of membership puzzles and the payment paradox, of the myriad ways we as journalists break trust with the public.

Over the course of six months I met and studied the work of people dedicated to tackling the question, among them Joy Mayer and her Trusting News Project, Todd Milbourn and Lisa Heyamoto and their 32 Percent Project, and Fergus Bell and his Global Guide to initiatives tackling fake news.

Their work was pressing and impressive and others soon followed suit: now there’s the Journalism Trust Initiative, Jay Rosen’s Optimizing Journalism for Trust (“the hard part is not to stay in business, but to stay in journalism”), and much, much more. As I continued sponging up all the news on trust and journalism I realized the answer to my initial question as to why no one was doing anything like JTrust: it’s a ton a work.

I’d launched the newsletter as a pop-up, and with the volume of news about trust and news growing ever greater and my book deadline looming ever more ominously, JTrust popped down.

A few takeaways: As a journalist I now have a much deeper understanding of the nuances and complexities in the trust conversation, which enabled me to curate a vertical on building trust for the American Press Institute’s Better News Project, a resource to help newsrooms navigate this fast-changing landscape.

The team at The Herald, one of two family-run newspapers in the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Photo credit: Sara Catania

Last fall I was in New Mexico and happened upon a small town with two local, family-run newspapers at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and yet both were supported by the residents of the town. I dedicated two issues of the newsletter to their stories, which were re-published in the Democracy Fund’s Local News Lab. This story serves as an example of the possibilities for trust and local news, and an illustration of the unsung work already underway in parts of the country that don’t get nearly enough attention in this conversation. How many more of these stories are out there, waiting to be shared?

For the length of its limited run, JTrust the newsletter and accompanying Twitter account captured stories like this, and helped keep people informed about the journalism and trust conversation. But the problem I set out to address with JTrust — providing a central place to see and connect on trust and journalism — is still out there. It’s only gotten bigger and more pressing.

JTrust was an unpaid starting point, a labor of love well worth the time and effort. It demonstrated the need, the interest and the scope of the work. But such a project can’t go on forever without support. Collecting and curating all of the work being done on trust in journalism is a job. A job someone should be paid to do.

With journalism’s limited resources and the urgency of the effort, it’s time for the disparate groups working to bridge the gap between what journalists do and what people trust to turn toward one another and work together. To pool resources and findings and leverage learnings. Surely there’s a pocket of funding out there, a person eager to do this work, and a host site able to accommodate it.

In the meantime, the heightened attention to trust in journalism serves as a reminder to all of us of our responsibility to the public. I’m currently working on a project with GroundSource to document how newsrooms are using the tool/platform to listen to and interact with their audiences and communities. The best thing about it? The conversations I’m having, with journalists working to connect with people, and with people who are, by and large, wary if not distrustful of journalists and journalism. The permission to have these conversations is one of the things I’ve always loved about being a journalist. It’s a privilege, and I’m doing my best to handle it with care.

Thank you to everyone who supported the JTrust pop-up newsletter over the course of its run, including Dawn Garcia at Stanford’s John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, Tracie Powell with the Center for Democracy, Sally Lehrman at the Trust Project, Josh Stearns and Teresa Gorman with Local News Fix, Amy Kovac-Ashley with the American Press Institute, and Tim Griggs with the Better News Project.