Principles focused journalism: How journalists and communities can work together to build trust-based relationships

The lack of trust in the media is not a new problem for the industry. And for people working in the engaged journalism space with the intent to earn the public’s trust, it’s useful to remember that.

Over the past few months, I’ve come to the conclusion that we should add another “reminder” for ourselves: Journalists will build trust with the public not because of a special relationship between the public and journalism, which can lead to an overemphasis on “strong/fact-based/quality journalism.” Instead, increased trust will be derived from journalism organizations understanding basic factors of trust and how it’s earned, and then strategizing to make changes based on this new and deepened understanding.

Lisa Heyamoto and Todd Milbourn’s 2018 report, “The 32 Percent Project: How Citizens Define Trust and How Journalists Can Earn it,” has helped my thinking along in this respect. To understand how journalists can build trust with the public, they suggest it’s necessary to understand why anybody trusts anything. They identify seven factors that contribute to trusting relationships: Authenticity, Transparency, Consistency, Positivity, Diversity, and Shared Mission

I want to focus on Shared Mission as an under-researched and high potential pathway for journalists, and those who practice engaged journalism in particular, to build trust with communities. Heyamoto and Milbourn define the Shared Mission as “creating a sense that a news organization shares bedrock values and is invested in the good of the community.” But how can media organizations harness their Shared Mission as a strategy to build trust, and how would they know it’s working?

To do both of those things, I’d suggest deploying a practice from the evaluation field called principles-focused evaluation. The premise of this practice is that principles can and should be evaluated.

  • Principles can be evaluated and measured as long as they are defined as specific actions to take place in particular contexts.
  • Principles should be evaluated because that will tell the organization whether or not they’re adhering to their principles.

As Michael Quinn Patton has put it, principles-focused evaluation fits for any organization that wants to “find out whether they are walking the talk of their principles and whether their work, initiatives, interventions, programs, and projects are adhering to espoused principles, and if so, whether that adherence is leading to the changes they envision for a better world.”

But how can journalists can put this into practice in pursuit of the Shared Mission trust-factor? Organizations can develop or refine missions together with the public that are ultimately defined as measurable principles. This process would put to use engaged journalism practices of deep listening and audience participation. Based on that collaboration, mission statements that double as organizational hypotheses can be developed and tested.

To see how these parts could play out, let’s look at an organization that has a mission that aligns with community needs. Outlier Media is a Detroit-based organization with a mission to “identify, report, and deliver valuable information to empower residents to hold landlords, municipal government and elected officials accountable for long standing problems in the housing and utilities markets.” Outlier does this by asking Detroit residents, via SMS, if they would like housing information and sending responses directly to them if they respond in in the affirmative. Sarah Alvarez, the founder of Outlier Media, tailored the organization’s mission to a specific need that journalism can fill, which is closing the information gap between citizens and the powerful.

Outlier Media is an example of an organization with a mission that overlaps with community needs. And, as we at the Impact Architects have found in research we’re conducting for the News Integrity Initiative about engaged journalism practices and trust (full research report coming soon), there’s a high likelihood that Outlier Media is earning trust, and one of the starting point is the Shared Mission.

But that brings us to the other question: How do we know an organization is maintaining its principles and that their practices are leading to the desired results? For an organization like Outlier Media, it’s relatively straightforward. Outlier Media serves one community need and it does it well, and the engagement of an audience that generally lacks trust in the media — low income residents — shows that their principles and practices are leading to trust.

It’s more complicated but no less doable for larger organizations with more general missions. Take, for example, another of our research cases. McClatchy is a publisher that operates in 14 states and 30 markets throughout the United States. Papers under McClatchy cover everything from sports to local politics, and its mission is necessarily broad: “To produce local journalism that resonates with readers and makes a difference in our communities.”

In order to measure the success of its stories, McClatchy parses what “resonate” and “make a difference” mean in to a series of questions, such as “Will the story break news that holds leaders or institutions accountable?” or “Will the story attract an extraordinary amount of readership or engagement because it is of great interest or value to our readers?” Before a story moves forward, the editorial team has to determine that the pitch can answer “yes” to one of the five questions, and after the story is produced and distributed, McClatchy papers measure its success based on whether or not it actually fulfilled that aspiration. This is mission as measurement.

These two examples from very different organizations show how distinct aspects of principes-focused evaluation can build trust through a Shared Mission, and how that mission can be harnessed as a tool for engagement as well as measurement.

Interested? Here’s a process that brings these two parts together:

  1. Define what you want your work to do. If it’s build trust in communities, vigilantly center that idea in everything that follows.
  2. Define or refine organizational mission through deep listening with communities. What do community member say they want you to be? What’s the Shared Mission?
  3. Draw out actionable and guiding principles from the mission that are adaptable in context, and then create checks based on those principles to decide where to dedicate resources.
  4. Always ask yourself and the community whether or not the work is fulfilling the stated Shared Mission: is your organization adhering to the principles? And what evidence are you gathering to support that answer?

Notably, engaged journalism practitioners may be uniquely equipped for implementing a process like this. That’s significant because it affirms that engaged journalism truly does lead to greater trust, and that it can do so in a way more integral to the organization than just content creation.