Care about fact checking and credibility? Get serious about understanding your audience

Defensiveness among journalists puts the Fourth Estate at risk

This post is a response to the newly resurrected Carnival of Journalism blogging challenge. The prompt for this month was: Designing for audience behavior…Regardless of how we present our stories to our audiences — online, on-air, or in print — do we truly take them into consideration?

My childhood dentist used to have a sign that hovered with quiet rebuke directly in your line of sight as you reclined in the chair for a cleaning: Q: “Do I have to floss all my teeth? A: Just the ones you want to keep!”

That’s what comes to mind first when I consider the question of what audience means to journalism. Distasteful and tedious as it may seem to some journalists to have to pay so much attention to reader/viewer needs and views rather than their own editorial judgements and interests, if you want to develop and keep a loyal audience, there is little choice.

Journalists have increasingly begun to accept this reality. The NYT 2020 report was not just yet another unsurprising call for a bigger organizational commitment to digital but, importantly, for an increased focus on subscribers and reader participation in news. Many news organizations now use human-centered design concepts when they are preparing to launch a new app, vertical or project. This is also a core element of our social journalism MA degree at CUNY J-School — the audience is always at the center of everything we do, whether it is reporting, understanding metrics, finding new ways to listen to people’s concerns, etc.

But as journalism finds itself facing a crisis of audience trust in the wake of Trump’s ascension to the presidency and a host of failed polls and predictions, all too often I see a defensive retrenching back into attitudes and practices that privilege the journalist over the public we aim to serve. We do so at our peril.

Last week I attended an interesting event at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on Fact-Checking: What happened in 2016; finding our way in 2017. It attracted many leading national news organizations and academics. It was a useful discussion, but it was clear that when under threat, the response of many of the (relatively) privileged in our business, is, unsurprisingly, to fall back on familiar routines and defensive posturing.

Stung by criticism from Trump and his voters of “the media,” most of those in the room seemed focused on how they could somehow project greater neutrality while calling out Trump administration falsehoods. The conversation centered less on better understanding these voters but rather: How do we keep doing more or less what we’ve been doing, but just somehow convince them with gentle language that need us, they like us after all?

For example, one participant bemoaned how the press had often “Let ourselves be dragged into an adversarial role” — as though that isn’t in a fundamentally the job of a watchdog. The job isn’t to be liked, but to be trusted. I think trust calls more for transparency and respect than a strained neutrality in the face of repeated falsehoods.

If we were truly designing our fact checking for reader behavior, we would also be concerned about the ~75 percent of the country that did NOT vote for Trump. Around 50 percent didn’t vote at all, completely disengaged from our political process.

Those nonvoters, well — how many of them, confronted with saturation media coverage of polls and horse race, see themselves as merely ineffectual spectators rather than participants in public life, as scholars like the late James Carey and NYU’s Jay Rosen and others have been writing about for years?

How many of these nonvoters belong to marginalized groups that journalists still do a poor job of including in their coverage or their staffs?

If we want to get serious about helping the public trust our verification efforts, we need to be expansive and inclusive. We need to design for audience behavior. We need to get past futile demands for the respect that we think we deserve for our hard work, and sit back and listen to what our readers think about how we can present our fact-checking in a way that is understandable, relevant, and credible.

If, you know, journalism and democracy are things we want to keep.