Online Chaos Demands Radical Action by Journalism to Earn Trust
By Richard Gingras & Sally Lehrman
The Trust Project
In today’s burgeoning and chaotic news ecosystem, it is difficult to parse truth from falsehood, wisdom from spin. Legacy newspapers, digital media ventures, sponsored content and social media clamor for our attention.
The voices of quality journalism command neither the respect nor credibility they expect and truly deserve. Last year a whopping 55 percent of a random sample of Americans surveyed by Pew Research Center (1) said they simply did not expect a fair, full and accurate account of the days’ events and issues. As many as 26 percent said they did not trust the news to get facts right. (2)
Trust matters. Without it, both the news enterprise and our collective state of knowledge suffer. We live in an ever more challenging and complex world. Holding government, corporations and institutions accountable is increasingly vital. A working democracy relies on fair, accurate and thorough information that is distributed widely, consumed widely and respected for its credibility.
Yet 31 percent of the more than 2,000 U.S. adults surveyed by Pew (3) said they had dropped a favorite news source because it no longer served their news and information needs. The reason? The quality of news they had come to expect had declined and news stories were incomplete.
Media credibility has been a challenge for decades (4) and is far more so today. Before the information explosion we call the Internet, audiences chose from a comparatively limited and easily understood set of options such as local, regional and national newspapers; radio and television news; literary and service magazines; and specialized newsletters. The titles were well-known and distinct, even if their profit models and reporting methods were not always transparent.
Today paid content, brand content and news websites have names and looks that seem much the same. How does a reader decide whether one news article, image or video is more trustworthy than another? How does she determine the motivation of the publisher, the expertise of the journalist, the degree of vetting that preceded publication?
It’s time to consider new approaches. Can serious news outlets find ways to establish trust beyond relying on the reader to divine their reputation? Can we abandon the simplistic model of “trust us because we are us?” A stronger framework of trust would allow news organizations to clarify how and why their efforts deserve readers’ confidence. Here are some possibilities.
Mission, Social Responsibility & Ethics
One simple first step is a posted mission statement and ethics policy that convey the mission of a news organization and the tenets underlying its journalistic craft. Only 50% of the top ten US newspapers have ethics policies available on the web and only 30% of ten prominent digital sites have done so (5). Both news organizations and individual journalists could build trust by stating their objectives, their capabilities and their standards. Fundamentally, news outlets hold dear their role in civil society and make editorial decisions accordingly. How well do they signal their civic objectives and their associated coverage? Similarly, audiences deserve to know whether a newsroom’s decisions may be skewed by a singular perspective. How diverse is the staff and what are its practices regarding inclusive reporting?
Expertise & Disclosure
Far too often the journalist responsible for the work is not known to us. Just a byline. Yet expertise is an important element of trust. Where has their work appeared? How long have they worked with this outlet? Can audiences access their body of work? Might we even learn key elements of their background outside of journalism, such as volunteer work, their training in intercultural reporting or, if they participate in civic affairs, their political inclinations? And now that some journalists no longer observe strict conflict-of-interest rules, audiences deserve to judge for themselves a portfolio that includes both journalism and promotional writing.
A proud characteristic of professional news organizations is that most content passes through a rigorous editing and vetting system. Journalists assume the audience understands when and how this occurs, a dangerous assumption at a time when audiences happen upon a unknown publication through social referrals and search engines. News outlets could signal editing levels by creating a clear labeling system or listing all participants in the process such as fact checkers, editors, and even lawyers when they get involved.
Citations and Corrections
Academic publications require footnotes and citations to support the author’s explorations and conclusions. Wikipedia’s citation system allows users to evaluate the veracity of entries. Volunteer editors can delete unsupported claims or label articles that have insufficient citations, and users can track the history of an entry. In pursuing a story, journalists already compile supporting documentation for every fact. Citations and more specific links would allow audiences to assess their effort and accuracy. An effective system would also allow audiences to alert editors to perceived inaccuracies, as the Report an Error Alliance has proposed, and follow corrections.
A reporter recently bemoaned the fact that his high-risk, on-the-ground Middle East reporting was fueling derivative works by others who’d gone no further than the range of their laptop’s cursor. Does a Cairo dateline clearly signal the crucial difference? Not likely. And how would anyone know the article was the result of two dozen interviews, since most were not directly quoted, plus reviews of third party documents and data analysis? Similarly, how can viewers tell when a chart or graphic reflects hours of data analysis or a quick repackaging of a handout from a source with an agenda? Audiences might find it easier to sort the derivative from deeply reported, the dashed-off from the investigative, if journalists described the methodology behind each work.
Can Journalism Afford It?
In many ways, this approach suggests little new effort except for more rigor and transparency. Basically we’re suggesting that a quality news organization be loud and proud about the rigorous efforts it undertakes to deliver credible journalism. Editorial review, fact-checking and the use of links as general backup are already in place. Tools such as checklists, metadata, and existing content management systems can enhance and make these processes transparent. Consider it Reporter’s Notebook 2.0.
Trust Translates to Value
We believe that a new framework of journalistic trust would harvest great value. First, it would grow the respect and loyalty of the audience — the people that journalists strive to inform, that help spread the word via social networks, that support the news business through subscriptions and ad revenue. Second, it would create valuable signals for algorithmically driven search engines and recommendation systems — the ever more important tools to push news out to audiences. And third, it would increase ad revenue by luring commercial advertisers and sponsors that also value trustworthiness.
These thoughts are the foundation of The Trust Project, a new effort led by the authors and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University to stimulate discussion and prompt action on these issues. Our new world of news and information, while richer in expression, is also rife with hidden motives and uneven trustworthiness. Quality journalism deserves a better fate than to be drowned in the maelstrom.
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Richard Gingras (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a longtime Internet and media executive and is currently Senior Director for News and Social Products at Google (bio). Sally Lehrman (email@example.com) is an independent journalist who covers science and social issues. She is a senior scholar on journalism ethics at the Markkula Center (bio).
Vetting: This article was a collaborative effort of the authors. There was no external editing or vetting.
Methodology: Based largely on the professional expertise of the authors. The Trust Project convened a discussion among news leaders and the authors have tested the idea with senior editors and managers in the news media, but they did not request any endorsements.
- Pew Research Center, “Further Decline in Credibility Ratings for Most News Organizations,” Aug. 16, 2012.
- Pew Research Center, “Amid Criticism, Support for Media’s ‘Watchdog’ Role Stands Out,” Aug. 8, 2013.
- Jodi Enda and Amy Mitchell, Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Americans Show Signs of Leaving an Outlet, Citing Less Information,” State of the News Media, 2013.
- Pew Research Center, “Press Widely Criticized, but Trusted More than Other Information Sources,” Views of the News Media: 1985–2011.