TIME Person of the Year for 2018: The Guardians and the War on Truth

5 things you can do to repair trust in journalism (no matter who you are)

The relationship between journalism and the public is broken, and that’s something that should frighten anyone who cares about democracy and access to information.

TIME named specific journalists (or guardians) as its Person of the Year for 2018 “for taking great risks in pursuit of greater truths, for the imperfect but essential quest for facts that are central to civil discourse, for speaking up and for speaking out.”

They wrote: “In 2018, journalists took note of what people said, and of what people did. When those two things differed, they took note of that too. The year brought no great change in what they do or how they do it. What changed was how much it matters.”

Journalism does indeed matter, and the public conversation around journalism is toxic and dangerous. The staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., was included in TIME’s group of honored journalists. On that awful June day when a gunman acted out his anger by murdering five Capital Gazette journalists in their newsroom, a community newspaper in Utah received threatening phone calls. One person wanted to know if the Capital Gazette was liberal or conservative, as if the answer could explain or even justify the murders. Another caller said the Utah newspaper is “fake news” and the Maryland journalists deserved what they got.

Our Trusting News project is dissecting and analyzing mistrust of news. We work directly with journalists on ways to demonstrate credibility and earn trust. We’ve learned a lot about how Americans consume news, what they say they want from their news and what they misunderstand about the news.

It’s up to all of us to fix this. The situation is dire, but it isn’t hopeless. Here are five things that need to happen — on each side of this fractured relationship — for change to occur.

5 things news consumers should do

  1. Be deliberate about the news you consume. Recognize that it isn’t all equally nutritious, and create an information diet for yourself that is ethically and responsibly produced. Questions to consider: Does the news organization have an ethics policy? Does it publicly correct errors? Does it differentiate between news and opinion coverage? If not, go elsewhere.
  2. If you don’t like the way news is operating, demand better. Ask questions of journalists, and do so publicly. But please be specific. Complaining about “the media” (a phrase that covers such a huge territory that it includes talk radio hosts, high school sports reporters and travel writers) doesn’t contribute to healthier information. You might have concerns about how national politics are being covered. That’s valid and important. But it has little to do with the work of journalists in your local community. Stop conflating them.
  3. Don’t use the term “fake news.” If it’s fake, it’s not news. We should all talk more about false claims that are designed to mislead and how we can be less susceptible to them — but those claims are not part of the news landscape. And the term simply does not apply to information you just don’t agree with.
  4. Speak out about dangerous speech directed at journalists. Criticizing the work is fair game. Attacking people is not, and it can lead to violence. Don’t tolerate it from your friends and family, and don’t tolerate it from your president or local politicians.
  5. Support journalism financially if you can — especially local journalism. Communities don’t thrive unless they have access to information, a shared set of facts, a sense of coherence and a sense of where they’re going. Providing that takes money.

5 things journalists should do

  1. Accept that the relationship between journalism and the people it aims to serve is broken, and take responsibility for that. If not you, who? If not now, when? Wishing that were different will not change anything, and there’s no time to waste. It’s not enough to just do good journalism. This crisis of trust requires more of you.
  2. Remember that not all journalism is in fact ethical and responsible. Sometimes advertising dollars or politics do influence coverage decisions. Sometimes journalists aren’t careful to be fair. Sometimes errors are hidden rather than corrected. If you stand behind your work, differentiate yourself from “the media.” Don’t just tell people they should trust journalism — persuade them they should trust your journalism.
  3. Strike up conversations about what you do. Understand that when a lot of Americans hear “journalism,” their minds go straight to national political coverage. Their concept of the word might not include most of what your newsroom covers, and they might not know any other journalists personally. Look for chances to have conversations about the range of things your newsroom offers, such as coverage of public safety, schools, roads, arts and health. And find ways to explain that your work has value — and costs money to produce.
  4. Recognize that there is a lack of public knowledge about how journalism operates, and do something about it. Find ways to explain your ethics and your process. Describe your mission and goals. Dissect the decisions you make in producing each story, and find ways to explain them. A chunk of your audience is assuming the worst about you, and you have to challenge those assumptions. Don’t want to be part of the story? Tough. The narrative about journalism has got to change.
  5. Invest in really understanding what your community thinks of you. Invite feedback and questions, then engage publicly with those questions. It’s uncomfortable to dwell in criticism, but that’s where you’ll learn about their misassumptions. Only then can you anticipate criticism and misunderstanding and address them proactively.

The Trusting News project, staffed by Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh, is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund.