From left to right: Knight Commission co-chair Tony Marx, Commissioners Mizell Stewart III, and Charles Sykes

Five takeaways from Miami meeting of Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy

Nancy Watzman
Feb 26, 2018 · 5 min read

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Members of the Knight Commission on Media, Trust and Democracy gathered for a workshop last week in Miami, and several stayed on for the Knight Media Forum– including a public panel on the commission’s work. Read the round up of the public conference on the Knight Foundation blog.

Here are five takeaways from the Comission’s discussions.

1. There’s much to learn about increasing trust in media from those who never had it.

We know that trust in the media overall is at an all-time low, but for some communities it’s always been so. “Yes, this is a crisis moment, but in communities of color there’s been a crisis of trust forever,” Sara Lomax Reese, president and CEO of WURD, told the Commission. Lomax Reese described WURD, an African-American owned and operated talk radio station in Pennsylvania, and one of few in the country, as a “high-touch” operation that enjoys trust but emphasized that this is because the staff is deeply embedded and involved in the local community. Lomax Reese’s observations are echoed by conservative commentators: Commissioner Charles Sykes told conference attendees,“Smugness is not a business model.” And Yuval Levin, in his white paper Commissioned by the Knight Foundation, has pointed out that journalists are too often seen as an out of touch elite group chasing personal celebrity.

Commissioner Raney Aronson-Rath and Ethan Zuckerman, adviser to the Commission.

2. Transparency can build trust, but it’s expensive.

Jay Rosen of New York University, presented a ten-point plan for journalists for increasing trust, ranging from abandoning the “view from nowhere,” to showing their work and explaining how much it costs. Commissioner Raney Aronson, executive producer of Frontline, related how her team has been making available not just source documents for reports but even searchable interview video — but noted that this is a time-intensive and costly way to report stories. Several commissioners with experience as news executives noted how expensive such efforts can be.

Maria Elena Salinas, former Univision anchor, addresses the Commission.

3. Bots can be defeated/bots will be the end of us.

Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, opened the Knight Media Forum by declaring he is a “techno-optimist,” but added that the dawn of the Internet age had not been good for trust and authenticity. Tim O’Reilly told the Commission and later keynoted the conference<link> with a relatively rosy view of technical challenges, saying that we already have the knowledge to block bots and that social media algorithms are trainable, but that you need to think like an engineer, not like a journalist. Others, such as Commissioner Sean Gourley and futurist Amy Webb, presented a bleaker views, with Webb delving deeply into how easy it will be to fake media in the future. And BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman, addressing both the Commission and a packed session at the conference, provided a reporter’s practical view of the varieties of fake news. “Trustworthiness can be faked and fabricated,” he said.

4. Following the money.

Much discussion centered around how incentives in the current system, where social media platforms are dominating the means of distribution, work against trust in the media. Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman talked about Macedonian teenagers and health spammers in Pakistan having every reason to continue to fabricate information and spread it across social networks if it makes them easy money. Other incentives include sowing misinformation for political purposes or trolling for the fun of it. (See: Claire Wardle of First Draft’s piece on seven types of misinformation.) Commissioner Ethan Zuckerman mused about whether there are ways to give people more control over what they see on social media: for example, tools that would allow people to take information from social media platforms and display or view them according to their own criteria. Nuala O’Connor, a commissioner and president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, noted ongoing policy discussions range from anti-trust to revising liability exemptions for social media platforms to product liability suits holding platforms accountable when they spread damaging information. Algorithms are not neutral, she reminded conference attendees.

Commissioner Nuala O’Connor.

5. Making money remains a challenge.

More presence in communities, more transparency, defeating bots: it all takes money, but news organizations have less and less of that. Commissioners heard from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who is pursuing a new model for journalism, Wikitribune, where professional journalists work alongside volunteers. Texas Tribune founder John Thornton, a Commissioner, discussed how philanthropists need to approach local journalism outlets as they do ballet or symphony, and invest without expectation that they can survive solely as commercial enterprises. Many representatives local foundations and local journalism outlets attended the conference, and in break-out sessions discussed various models to form partnerships and raise money, from Detroit, Chicago, and Vermont, to the NewsMatch program where foundations and news organizations recently together raised nearly $5 million. But the problem remains stubborn: Commissioner Anthea Watson Strong, Product Manager for News for Facebook, which is experimenting now with ways to elevate local news, told the conference that Facebook is befuddled by the lack of sustainable local news models when they see how much their users crave it: “If I had an answer to what the local business model..we could all go home.”

Read the full program recap on the Aspen Institute website.

How would you tackle these problems? Let us know in the comments below.

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

Nancy Watzman

Written by

Nancy Watzman is editor of Trust, Media & Democracy on Medium & director of strategic initiatives for Dot Connector Studio.

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

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