It is up to journalists to define ‘trustworthy’ news

The initiatives to stop the spread of disinformation abound, but the phenomenon continues to rise. It not only undermines journalism, but also people’s trust in the media, resulting in the growing problem of news avoidance. What if journalists took matters in their own hands? That’s the goal of the Journalism Trust Initiative.

Global Editors Network
Global Editors Network


A recent initiative by Reporters Without Borders with the support of Agence France Presse, the European Broadcasting Union and the Global Editors Network (a disclosure!) aims to develop professional standards in the frame of the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI). It is a self-regulatory solution with defined indicators for trustworthy sources of information in the digital age. GEN spoke with Olaf Steenfadt, the Director of JTI, to understand what is unique about this initiative and how realistic it is to implement. Olaf says the development of such standards is imminent as the demand is high from all sides, but journalists must take the lead before anybody else imposes their views on the field.

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GEN: According to the latest IPSOS survey, trust in traditional media has decreased over the past five years and people rely most on those they know personally. What are the risks if these trends continue to grow?

Olaf Steenfadt: Well, trusting people you know is a good thing I guess, and not a risk (laughs). But seriously, the decline of trust in media is of course worrying. I think we are just entering an era in which enlightenment is being reversed, beliefs are stronger than facts, rumours and conspiracy theories are passed on easily, while complex or inconvenient truths go down. This might be very entertaining, but what’s dying alongside is democracy. And deteriorating trust in the pillars of democracy, such as media, is one of the symptoms and maybe a cause at the same time. Democracy needs a fact-based discourse and that’s what journalism stands for and what it should deliver.

What is more important: trust or transparency? And is it easier to define trust indicators or transparency indicators?

You cannot have one without the other. There is no trust without transparency, or let’s say without openness. This is the case for personal relationships — how can I trust you if I don’t know who you are? Like the IPSO study tells us, you trust people you know. But that’s also true for other, more collective forms of relationships, of communication and information, like media. So transparency is a prerequisite for trust. And the same goes for indicators. Defining trust indicators without first defining transparency indicators seems a bit pointless to me.

Trust indicators are not a new idea. What is new and innovative about the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI)?

There are two main aspects that we believe are important. One is compliance. As a media outlet, having professional norms and being transparent about your identity is great. But the standard that we develop is certifiable. That means you can have yourself audited based on it and, if you wish, go the extra mile towards accountability. That’s the main reason why we opted for the official standard setting procedure under the guidelines of the European Committee for Standardization.

The second point is about benefits. Why would you go the extra mile? Compliance needs to be rewarded. In fact, big tech companies, platforms as well as advertisers and regulators have expressed a demand for such an independent mechanism to support journalism worthy of its name. The Journalism Trust Initiative is the missing link between mostly existing professional norms and the benefits media are or should be entitled to.

It is said that “JTI focuses on the process — or the ‘manufacturing’ level of journalism — only, not on single pieces of content”. Could you elaborate more on this?

It means that we are not ranking, rating or judging an individual article. The reason is that we fear such a mechanism, even if well-intentioned, could be easily misused and turned into a tool for censorship. Therefore, the JTI standard only looks at the environment in which journalism is being produced, the benchmarks of quality and safeguards of independence at the process level.

A very important point here is also workability. Whatever we propose must work in a daily newsroom routine. Running a given trust indicator at an article level means either placing additional burden on the workforce or introducing a great deal of automation, and we find both problematic. JTI self-reporting and, if wanted, audit is a one-off thing for a media outlet, maybe with a certain interval of renewal, so the effort is much lower.

Courtesy of the European Broadcasting Union

Other industries are used to standardization and certification, but not the news industry. Is it realistic to standardize the news making process?

I think we all understand by now that just claiming ‘trust me, I am a journalist’ is not enough anymore these days. The rise of ‘fake news’ has led to a much-needed look into the mirror for the professional community — asking ourselves what it is really that makes people trust us and our product. If we don’t do it as journalists, someone else will do it and impose it on us. So better take it into our own hands.

What is the role of self-regulation in the JTI? As private companies also try to measure trust, why is a collective initiative a better solution?

Self-regulation always meant that the journalistic community defines the criteria for what good or bad journalism is and implements them. We don’t need governments or regulators or advertisers of platforms or private companies to tell us what these criteria are. With JTI, we are just taking the principle of self-regulation to the digital age and translating these criteria into machine-readable signals, developed by journalists for journalists. That’s self-regulation 2.0 if you like.

Would major media organizations be interested to be part of JTI? When you are The New York Times, Der Spiegel or The Guardian, do you need to prove you are trustworthy?

Frankly, I think the medium-sized and smallest media outlets should benefit most from JTI and, anyway, they are closest to our hearts at RSF. Interestingly, if you look into the history of standard setting in other industries, it is usually the SMEs that go for it to protect their innovation and patents, not so much the big companies. However, the luminary brands in our industry could definitely help and lead the way, especially at this early stage, even if they are less in need.

When it comes to determining the trustworthiness of an outlet, what is the balance between efficiency and simplicity? How many questions must a medium-size news organization answer to fulfill the JTI standards?

I think it is important to stress that this is not a daily task, but a one-off thing, maybe performed on a yearly basis. My guess is that it would take one person a few hours, a full morning maybe, at most, to fill out the questionnaire. Currently we expect around 200 questions to be answered, but most of them are just boxes to tick.

One thing is to fill out a form and to declare that you will fulfill some obligations, another is to actually do so. How will it be possible to check thousands of declarations every year?

Self-disclosed transparency is already quite something, even without a check, because it allows the general public to report mistakes and to hold media outlets accountable, if the latter don’t meet their obligations or, even worse, if they cheat. But the major feature of standard setting is the certifiability of the standard. This means you can have yourself audited on a voluntary basis and really prove that you are living up to your promise. That possibility simply does not exist so far in journalism, and we are creating it and will actively promote it.

What do you expect from the official public consultation and how long it will last? What is the next step for JTI following the consultation?

We invite everyone, the general public and professional communities to tell us what they think in detail. The legitimacy of JTI will come from the widest feedback we can possibly receive and the deadline for it is 19 October. Afterwards, all comments will be compiled and assessed in the group of JTI stakeholders, which consists of over 120 experts. Every contribution will be considered and feed into the final standard to be published at the end of this year.

Edited by Ana Lomtadze

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This is how you can provide feedback on the Journalism Trust Initiative:

1. Go to the website of CEN, the European Committee of Standardization

2. Download the draft JTI standards document there (link at the bottom)

3. Download the comments form (next to it)

4. Read the JTI document and add your comments to the form

5. Send it to the provided e-mail address before 18 October.

By early September, the commenting will also be facilitated by means of an interactive online-form.

Olaf has launched his career as a radio DJ and host, TV network correspondent and investigative journalist with public German broadcasters ARD and ZDF, where he also worked in corporate communications and strategy. Later he served as a media development consultant for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and Deutsche Welle, before joining Reporters without Borders as a Project Director in charge of the ‘Media Ownership Monitor’ (MOM) and the ‘Journalism Trust Initiative’ (JTI).



Global Editors Network
Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network is the worldwide association of editors-in-chief and media executives. We foster media innovation and sustainable journalism.