Knight commissioners, experts discuss ideas for needed change

Elizabeth Tilis
Sep 20, 2018 · 6 min read
Journalists listen to Trust, Media and Democracy presentation at ONA in Austin, Texas.

Members of the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy recently discussed their work and thoughts on opportunities to rebuild the public’s trust in media before an audience of journalists at the Online News Association conference in Austin, Texas.

Research shows public trust in the media is at an all-time low, Brandon Busteed, Senior Partner and Global Head of the Public Sector at Gallup, who also participated in the panel. “In fact, trust in media is on a steady 45-year decline,” he said.

It’s true: a survey of more than 19,000 U.S. adults released in January 2018, part of a series of reports released by Gallup and Knight Foundation this year, confirms more Americans have a negative (43%) than a positive (33%) view of the news media. Less than half say they can think of a news source that reports the news objectively. And 58% say the increased number of news sources actually makes it harder to stay informed.

And yet Busteed says it’s important to note that public’s erosion of trust is not limited to media. “Overall trust in major U.S. institutions across the board is also lower than ever.”

Knight Foundation’s Vice President/Journalism Jennifer Preston, who served as the panel’s moderator, challenged Busteed, the other panelists — and the audience — to identify opportunities to rebuild the public’s trust in media.

The Knight Commission has been meeting throughout 2018 around the country, and will be issuing a report with recommendations in early 2019. Some concrete recommendations the panel at ONA discussed included::

Commit to “radical transparency”

New research in the Gallup-Knight Trust, Media Democracy research series released this month shows that a commitment to transparency by news organizations is one way to help rebuild their trust in media, Busteed said. Seventy-one percent of Americans surveyed said that a news outlet’s commitment to transparency is a very important factor in fostering trust.

Pushing for what he calls “radical transparency” Mizell Stewart III, a member of the commission, who is the senior director, talent, partnerships and news strategy at Gannett/USA Today, said to that end, there needs to be a massive effort to explain what journalists do. He believes that in order to rebuild trust, journalists across the country need to better engage the public in not only what they do, but also how they do it.

“We need to discuss our sources and our methods. We need to explain decisions and explain to news consumers in real time what we’re doing,” he said. He encouraged journalists to engage audiences both online and offline through listening and two-way communication opportunities as a “way to give consumers insight into the process of reporting and editing.”

Stewart says he intentionally calls it radical transparency because “it’s just not natural for most journalists to talk about their work, or to allow people a window into their work. It’s almost like we pride ourselves on being opaque.”

Several projects were cited by panelists as working to to help increase transparency in news, including The Trust Project, an international consortium of news organizations collaborating to create standards of transparency in journalism and Trusting News, which is designed specifically to demystify the issue of trust in journalism.

Don’t just report the news, teach the news

In order to rebuild the public’s trust in media however, it will take more than a commitment to transparency from news organizations and journalists, said Busteed. He thinks that news consumers themselves will also need to be more educated on what they’re consuming and how they’re exactly they’re consuming it.

“I’d like to see new civic education in media literacy and news literacy, for example. I’d like to see a renaissance of civic education, which would include lessons on how to be smart consumers of news.” Busteed said. “It’s about teaching the public how to be critical thinkers and how to do things like identify news sources. It should start at the K-12 level and continue through higher education.”

When asked, news consumers are clear: they want to better understand things like how algorithms work on social media websites, which is people increasingly get their news and information. “We owe it to them to explain these intricacies,” said Busteed. “If people are going to continue to get their news through social media, we need to explore tools and resources that can help people become wiser consumers of media.”

Preston challenged the audience to think about what kind of tools and resources could be created to help people become wiser consumers of media. In particular, she noted that if people have ideas around artificial intelligence, they should apply for funding through an open call for ideas aimed at shaping the influence artificial intelligence has on the field of news and information. The open call, presented by the Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative, will invest $750,000 in the best ideas it receives. The Initiative is supported by Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Restore local news

John Thornton, the founder of The Texas Tribune and venture capitalist firm Elsewhere Partners, as well as a member of the Knight Commission, says he believes that the loss of the public’s trust in media stems back — at least in part — to the hollowing out of local news ecosystems. Mizell agreed, noting there are 10,000 fewer journalists working in local communities compared to fifteen years ago.

Thornton says he founded the Tribune because it was clear there was a “market failure in accountability journalism.” He reminded the audience that the newspaper industry’s revenue has fallen from $58.7 billion in 2007 to $28 billion in 2017. “We are at a constitutive moment in our democracy. We have got to figure out how we want our media to be shaped.”

He described what he says will be a “very ambitious attempt to rejuvenate local news,” called the American Journalism Project. With a goal of raising $50 million, Thornton says the project is looking to invest directly in 25–30 local news organizations across the country.

“We need to figure out how we want our media to be shaped. We don’t just need to fund journalists. We need to understand how to fund the gathering and reporting of the news in perpetuity.” His hope is that three to four years from now, there will be a handful of exemplary and successful community news organizations across the country.

Preston also cited NewsMatch, the largest grassroots campaign for nonprofit news which has helped organizations raise nearly $5 million in 2017, as an example of growing local news ecosystems. Now in its third year, the campaign will have more than 150 nonprofit news sites participate when it launches Nov. 1, 2018. Preston said that NewsMatch since it was launched by Knight Foundation in 2016, has always strived to help nonprofit news organizations increase their capacity to build donor bases in local communities.

Despite the somewhat dire statistics about the lost of trust in American institutions, the general public still overwhelming believe the news media have an important role to play in democracy, said Preston.

When she asked the panel whether it was possible for the public’s trust in media to be restored, Busteed said: “There is hope. We know there’s hope because 69% of people we surveyed told us that there is the opportunity to gain back their trust.” New research notes that transparency in particular joins accuracy and bias at the top of the list of importance ratings for trust.

It is clear that it will take journalists, technologists and the general public working together to restore trust in the news media. Ensuring journalism’s important role in our democracy will prove worthwhile.


Elizabeth Tilis is a digital communications consultant based in Leawood, Kansas.

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

Elizabeth Tilis

Written by

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

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