There are a lot of conversations on media trust — here’s why this one is a bit different

We’re diving deep into what social science scholarship tells us about the reasons behind trust-eroding behavior so we can adapt rather than expect the communities we serve to change for us.

Matt Sheehan
Science of Story Building
5 min readJul 2, 2018


CUNY’s Carrie Brown chats with JSK Fellow Andre Natta, UF’s Spiro Kiousis, MIT’s David Karger and UF’s April Hines during a conversation on trust convened at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications in June 2018. (photos by Ryan Jones)

It seems that rarely a week goes by without another report on media trust, a conference is held where this isn’t a critical topic, or we’re faced with yet another reminder of the fallacy of the press’ position as an invulnerable Constitutionally enshrined institution.

That’s why, in partnership with the News Integrity Initiative, the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications launched an exploration to look beyond treating the symptoms of erosion of trust in independent journalism and examine if we can do a bit more to understand the underlying causes.

There are a lot of smart and dedicated people looking for answers and strategies in this realm. There are at least 85 initiatives looking at “fake news,” confusion over the plethora of similarly named but nonetheless well-intentioned efforts, major foundations sponsoring research and commissions and a renewed conversation on the need for better media literacy. Lest we forget the examinations of technological interventions, existing and future.

So why one more effort?

We saw the need to look at the human component in matters of trust — how we are wired and how we perceive and process information—and translate those insights for use by journalists and newsrooms. We believe there are a lot of insights in many disciplines that are waiting to be unlocked as we tackle this problem.

With that goal in mind, we aim to curate research-based findings from all of these efforts and combine it with some scholarship review of our own to help news organizations employ science-informed strategies as we all work to build trusting relationships with our communities. It is a journey that we will spend the next year on, and publicly share our discoveries here.

Our first step: Gather the smart people we know

In early June we began this exploration in earnest. We brought together nearly 50 practitioners, scholars and funders for a day and a half of conversation. The folks who answered our call came from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, with some representing initiatives with similar goals to our own. We curated a collection of scholars from a number of disciplines, many from outside journalism and communication sciences, to provide insights on the media trust challenge from their expertise.

Tracie Powell, a Democracy Fund fellow, shares an insight during the second-day kickoff.

During the course of the discussions, we mixed and remixed these folks into a series of smaller group discussions to look at some of the challenges and questions around these matters of trust. Challenged with purposefully broad and often multi-pronged prompts, the groups tackled the questions bringing insights from their expertise.

Among the questions examined:

  • How do you help the public and newsrooms take a leap of faith with one another to imagine and try to bring to reality enduring trust and mutual respect?
  • In an era with documented news fatigue, how we we make the “truth” more interesting? How does social identity affect trust? Is trust rugged or fragile? What erodes it once established? How do we engage with communities with historic reasons for not trusting media?
Jenny Choi, of the News Integrity Initiative, chats with W3's Sandro Hawke and The Washington Post’s Brittany Mayes.
  • Can we turn journalism into a two-way conversation where journalists listen to their communities and should we? How can journalists incorporate vulnerability as a method to build trust without compromising objectivity? If someone would build tools that would let you intervene in human behavior, what would they be?
  • What are the models and methods for change in organizations and among practioners? How can we incorporate research into newsrooms? How can we experiment with small innovations or interventions? How do you implement these research-based ideas in newsrooms?
  • How can we incorporate more insights from sister disciplines/industries and how do we build a learning culture? How do we find and build relationships with trusted entities?
  • What is the role of facts in trust building and storytelling? How does trust vary when considering the source vs. the message? How do feelings shape trust in information?

All told, we collected nearly 17 hours of discussions on these topics and other insights that arose during the summit. We also collected an additional 52 questions and areas of further exploration from the participants. We are currently coding the hours of transcripts and questions, and identifying the insights the conversations unearthed.

A Living Lit Review

While this approach could easily be perceived as yet another conversation among many, we believe this is an important first step as we begin to design our own response—and help newsrooms respond—to the challenge of eroding trust.

At UF’s College of Journalism and Communication, we have employed similarly structured conversations in previous explorations on what scholarship can tell us about engaging and compelling stories. We call this process a “living lit review,” picking up on the academic practice of examining existing scholarship when tackling new challenges.

Our early attempt at finding recurring themes that emerged during the small group discussions from this slide to kick off the second day of discussions in June.

The living lit review is the first step to building a corpus of knowledge that grows and evolves as our UF team and others tackle the challenges. When we convene experts in a variety of fields, we find that insights arise that we may have missed when focusing solely from our own areas of expertise. Connections are made that we may miss or inspiration is found from analogous initiatives. From these initial conversations, our team is synthesizing the insights into themes for further exploration in the scholarship.

In the coming months, we’ll be releasing more discovery from these conversations and what the scholarship tells us about them. We’ll also be creating a public standard we’ll use in evaluating the scholarship we employ and taking a deeper dive in the information deficit model. By the fall, we hope to have a draft of science-based interventions for newsrooms to experiment with us and we’ll be partnering with some newsrooms to further explore the insights in the spring.

Follow along with our research insights or add to the conversation on Twitter using the #storyscience hashtag.

Have an insight or suggestion? Feel free to add to the conversation in the responses below.

With thanks, again, to the News Integrity Initiative, a project of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY for supporting and partnering with us on this exploration.



Matt Sheehan
Science of Story Building

Managing director @RealGoodCenter & senior lecturer @UFJSchool. Stints @washingtonpost @merrillcollege, COO at a DC media startup + evolving #pubmedia news.