Earning trust, eyeball to eyeball

Joy Mayer
Joy Mayer
Nov 27, 2017 · 5 min read

Can we all agree that the most effective way to build trust is face to face?
Looking into another person’s eyes one at a time may not be efficient, but it is likely to create authentic connection.

While journalists can’t talk one on one to every disgruntled user, your newsroom does have staff members who interact with, collectively, a lot of people every day. How can you use those interactions to help correct misconceptions and share the value of what journalists do?

Start by going into those encounters prepared.

In general …

Try to turn general complaints into specific ones. Say “what do you mean by that?” or “can you give me an example of that?” Use your reporting skills, and politely (not defensively) ask people to back up what they’re saying.

A lot of complaints are really about “the media,” not about your organization specifically. Look for chances to ask people how they’ve noticed a problem play out in your journalism.

Here are some common complaints, and ideas for how to make the conversation productive.

“Fake news”

Try leading off with the classic, “You know we don’t actually make things up, right?” Ask them what they’re afraid will happen in the story you’re reporting today. Are they suggesting that you will fabricate information? Remind them that you’re there, and you’re invested. Also try asking them what signs they’re looking for that information is credible. “I’m happy to answer your questions about where I found this information and who I talked to. What’s the best way to do that?”

Also, it needs to be said: If it’s fake, it’s not news. You probably don’t need to go into all the different kinds of misinformation (First Draft’s taxonomy is fantastic), but at least let’s not call it news.

The “liberal media”

Acknowledge there is a lot of partisan information out there, and that lazy and unfair journalism exists. Assure them your newsroom doesn’t have a political agenda and isn’t trying to influence how they vote. Ask if they consume your journalism and if have specific feedback on your coverage.

Perceived separateness or elitism

If someone has the impression “you journalists” just don’t care or don’t understand, remind them you live here too. Share something you have in common (you pay taxes, your kids go to schools, you’re invested in the health of the community). Talk about what your work means to you.

A lack of “good news”

First ask people what they wish the community knew more about. Write it down. Then offer an example of a recent story that shared positive things happening in the community. Tell them where to find those stories on your website.

Sensationalizing or “stirring the pot”

Let folks know your goal isn’t to cause trouble. You’re on the side of a healthy community. But ask if they think it’s important for journalists to shine a light on problems. Not everyone will agree on which problems need attention. But it’s hard to solve problems without public discussion, even when it’s uncomfortable. Remind them that, for every controversial story, there’s a side of the story that likely wishes no one knew about it.


Feel free to express agreement that too many headlines seem to trick people into clicking, which is really what clickbait is. There’s a difference between tricking people and just trying to get people back to your website for the full story.

An inconvenient paywall

Let people know you understand the perception that online news is free. But behind any credible information is probably a paid journalist. If it feels appropriate, be light-hearted. “Would you do your job for free?” Or, about journalism: “Would you sit through a planning and zoning committee meeting (or work every Friday night, or whatever you cover) for free?” Let them know what has changed in the industry is how willing advertisers are paying for people’s attention, not the motivation of journalists. If communities want someone to let them know what’s going on, money needs to exchange hands.


Many people don’t realize how seriously ethical journalists take accuracy. They don’t realize we want to know if we’ve gotten something wrong. Let them know about your corrections policy, and how they should get in touch if they spot an error. You can’t correct it if you don’t know it’s wrong. If their complaints are about typos or grammatical errors, acknowledge those happen and are really frustrating, and say you’ll take the feedback to the newsroom.

Keep in mind these conversation tips:

  • Be polite and respectful, even if they’re not. If you can’t do that, walk away.
  • Conversations take time. Be upfront if you can’t spare much time, but do your best to make it clear you want to hear what they have to say. It’s okay to put a limit on the time you spend, though, and offer to follow up later.
  • If you don’t have the answers or facts to address their concern, offer to get back to them or connect them with a colleague.
  • Be comfortable with what you can share and can’t share on behalf of the organization. Don’t represent official views unless you’re confident it’s appropriate.
  • Have business cards handy, or another easy way to have people get in touch with you directly (not the main newsroom phone number).
  • Feel free to defend your work. Try to do it from a perspective of explanation and education, not anger.
  • Show humility. Admit if you don’t have an answer, or if people are teaching you something new. Don’t pretend journalism has no flaws.

Level up: Have a handout

What if you could end these interactions by putting something in people’s hands that demonstrated your motivations, credibility and values? Something that invited them to help you better serve the community?

If your newsroom has a mission statement, consider printing it out, along with ways to leave feedback about how you’re doing. Include a url for your ethics policies, or to the SPJ Code of Ethics if you subscribe to it. Research shows that demonstrating that transparency builds trust, even if people don’t care to read the details. (Here are full-page and half-page examples of newsroom handouts that are focused on invitations, not specifically trust-building. But they’re easy to make and effective. If you have example of others, please send them to me at joy@TrustingNews.org.)

Consider even just slips of paper with a statement: “We are invested in earning your trust. Tell us how we’re doing,” along with information about how to offer feedback. Is there a downside to putting that in the hands of people you interact with?

What else are you hearing?

What are the most common complaints or points of confusion you’re hearing? Let us know what we should add.

The Trusting News project aims to empower journalists to more effectively earn trust and demonstrate credibility. It’s funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the Knight Foundation.

Trusting News

Updates from the Trusting News project team: Follow along as we demystify trust in news and empower journalists to demonstrate credibility and actively earn trust.

Joy Mayer

Written by

Joy Mayer

Engagement strategist. Director of TrustingNews.org. Adjunct faculty at Poynter. Community manager for Gather. Mom to Thing One + Thing Two. joymayer.com

Trusting News

Updates from the Trusting News project team: Follow along as we demystify trust in news and empower journalists to demonstrate credibility and actively earn trust.

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