Show and tell on social media

This past week saw a series of primary and special elections to gear up for the November midterms, as candidates in Minnesota prepared for this state’s primary this coming Tuesday — along with Vermont, Connecticut and Wisconsin.

While that was underway, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication convened its annual conference in Washington. At the conference, one of the items discussed was media literacy and ways to educate the public about journalism.

The discussion mentioned a recent study from the American Press Institute, which indicated that the public did not understand much about the process of journalism. As a result, it had a significant impact on trust.

This was also a finding of The 32 Percent Project, a study commissioned by the Agora Center at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, which looked at the issue through the realms of community engagement.

“Building trust is critical for the future of journalism and democracy,” said Todd Milbourn, one of the researchers, in a university news release. “But you can’t effectively build trust until you understand what drives and disrupts it.”

As we become accustomed to the culture of social media and the web, it too becomes more intertwined with modern journalism. Along the way, questions of trust have emerged as it continues to decline between journalists and members of the public — the people whom we are supposed to serve.

For coverage of these elections, be it primaries or the general election itself, members of the public will be looking to journalists to help make sense of the results, as well as the policies of those who aspire to get the public’s vote — be it for governor or member of Congress. They’ll be watching, listening, reading and flocking to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to get information, analysis and insight on what everything means.

While the focus of many journalists will be on covering that, this particular election season provides a unique opportunity for journalists to explain what they do. This opportunity is not restricted to any platform or beat, and can be a step forward in helping to combat the issues of trust that continue to debated in journalism.

A great starting point is engagement on platforms like Twitter, a hub for conversation as well as to get information. This engagement can be done through a two-fold means — being honest as well as being transparent.

Journalists have the ability to help restore trust between them and their audience, and it can start on Twitter. (Photo: Pixabay)

When you report something, explain what you know and how you know it. If you’re unsure about something, say so. Don’t speculate, and say that you’re working to confirm the facts. Don’t rush to judgment — ensure that the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed — it’s better to be right than to be first.

If someone asks a question about a story or something you’ve tweeted, don’t blow them off or ridicule them for asking. Explain why through the research and your reporting. If something you reported is incorrect and is pointed out by a reader, acknowledge the mistake and correct it.

Yet, the honesty and transparency doesn’t have to apply solely to the stories that are told. A more broader opportunity exists to explain the role of a journalist and why it’s important, especially if it comes in response to a question from a member of the public — be it as a Q&A on Facebook Live or a thread in response to a question on Twitter.

Encourage the audience to reach out individually with questions if there isn’t enough time to address everything, and make the contact information easy to find. Making that information easily accessible will be to the benefit of the audience. Encouraging feedback, along with making the ability to give feedback as painless as possible) will also help combat issues of trust.

The issue of trust between journalists and the public is one that will not be resolved overnight. Yet, the fact that you care about engaging with a member of the public and want to make it happen will go a long way from the public’s eyes in helping understand why journalism is important.

So this election season, show people why you care about journalism — convey to people why you do what you do, why journalism is important, and why things happen the way they do — and encourage people to give feedback. Not only will the audience thank you, the broader industry will too.

Editor’s note: This piece was amended on July 13, 2018 to correct the spelling of Todd Milbourn’s last name. It was originally spelled Milburn.