How to demonstrate trustworthiness with your coronavirus coverage

Mollie Muchna
Mar 17, 2020 · 12 min read
Newsroom partner The Coloradoan used an editor’s note at the top of their Coronavirus coverage to remind readers of their mission of serving the community.

During the coronavirus outbreak, the Trusting News team has been heartened to see journalists rallying around their communities and producing incredible work. We’ve seen newsrooms discussing how best to serve their audience during a global pandemic. We’ve seen paywalls removed for the health of local communities. We’ve seen journalists working overtime to cover the rapid-fire updates.

But we’ve also been watching the public’s reaction. We’ve been tracking some common themes when it comes to complaints, frustrations and misunderstandings from our audiences about how we do what we do.

Maybe you’ve come across some of them in emails, phone calls and comments: You’re blowing this out of proportion. You’re sensationalizing news to get more people on your website. You don’t care about getting it right. You only care about ratings, not protecting the community.

It’s tempting to brush these accusations off. But it’s important—perhaps now especially— that we as journalists demonstrate the credibility of our work and address misassumptions about how journalism works and what motivates it.

Here are some pieces of advice from our Trust Tips newsletter that might be especially useful to you during coronavirus coverage. We will continue to update this post. (Sign up here to receive weekly Trust Tips in your inbox.)

Show how your staff covers big news

When faced with big breaking news situations like this, journalists know how to mobilize. We quickly identify angles and assign staffers to cover key areas. But most news consumers (understandably) do not know what a commitment of resources that is. What if offering a window into the complexity of your work could help lend credibility and inspire an appreciation for the efforts? What if you told them which reporters were covering which aspect of the outbreak? Explained who they were talking to and what information they were trying to gather? Think about how you could shine a light on that investment. In a story (in text or on-air) or on social media, how can you explain the components of your coverage? Be careful to use a tone that focuses on explanation, not bragging. Your goal here isn’t to get a pat on the back for your staffers but to show the ways you’re working on behalf of the community. Read more in this Trust Tip.

Be clear about the goal of your coverage

There are a lot of updates flying around these days. There’s so much to know and understand, and there’s sure not a shortage of news stories. Many local newsrooms have likely had internal conversations recently that echo these sentiments: We want to help our audience make decisions. We want to inform people, not scare them. But have you said it outside the newsroom, to the people who matter most? Does your audience know about your goals for coverage of this huge, global story? Or, like so much of journalism’s internal deliberations, is your mission invisible to outsiders (you know, like the people you aim to serve). Try to articulate in a sentence (or a few) your approach to covering the coronavirus. Then think about where you could insert that messaging. Try on-air, in a newsletter or in a social post. Try putting it in italics at the top of a story, or at the top of your landing page of coverage. If you have a box teasing from coronavirus stories back to that landing page, add it to that box. (Yes, on every story. Few people will notice, much less complain about, the repetition.) Read more in this Trust Tip.

Explain how coverage affects your bottom line

Accusations of money driving news decisions aren’t uncommon in general, and they often ramp up during times of big news. (You’ve probably recently seen accusations like: You’re exaggerating the nature of the coronavirus because scaring people is good for ratings. How can you charge me to read information that is important to public safety right now?) But this shows that your audience is curious about your funding. While many journalists aren’t in the habit of talking about their funding with their audiences, no one but you is going to correct the record about your finances and your ethics. So talk in the newsroom about ways to honestly and thoughtfully respond to an accusation that you’re sensationalizing coverage because it brings in audience and revenue. Then find ways to inject that message into your coverage. Read more in this Trust Tip.

Explain how you decide which stories to cover

Your audience is noticing what you do and do not cover now more than ever. If we’re honest, a lot of our coverage decisions happen intuitively or are based on things we don’t verbalize in the newsroom, much less explain to the public. But if you don’t let the public in on your process, they’ll make all kinds of (likely negative) assumptions about your motivations and decision-making, like “the media is just reporting on this because they’re playing into mass hysteria.” To combat this, try making a list of the questions and complaints you’ve been hearing about your COVID-19 coverage. Then write a piece to share publicly describing your process and your goals. Share it over and over in comment threads, over email, in links within stories — anywhere it would be useful. Read more in this Trust Tip.

Ask for questions and input

With facts changing quickly, there is bound to be a lot of confusion and questions from your audience. But inviting feedback and questions will help you better understand what your audience doesn’t understand or may be missing in your coverage. Try asking them for their questions and feedback on social media, or by adding an editor’s note or shaded box to the web story. Remind them you’re here for the health of the community, then ask: “What would you still like to know about this story? Did we miss something? Let us know.” Read more in this Trust Tip.

Show the breadth of your journalism

During big new stories, it can be hard to remind folks that you do more than just churn negative news updates. During this outbreak, are you reporting on how to support local businesses? What families can do to keep safe? It’s also likely our audiences don’t really notice that we’re still reporting on other aspects of our communities, too, like local political races and traffic updates. It’s on us as journalists to expand our communities’ ideas of what journalism is by pointing out the breadth of our coverage. You can do it in a social thread, in a list of links in a newsletter, or in a quick roundup in print or on air. Read more in this Trust Tip.

Show you’re on the side of facts

In a situation evolving as fast as this one, it’s inevitable that we will report things that later turn out to be untrue. Think about how you can explain your reporting process to your audience. Talk about how you will update information and where the latest updates can be found. (Will it be online, or on social? Will you remove incorrect information?) Make it clear you will correct errors publicly and will only cite the best information you can find. And if you see other news outlets sharing misinformation, correct that as well. This can be done from within a story, in a social post, in a newsletter — anywhere you’re communicating about the topic. Think of it as an opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to getting it right and being on the side of facts. Read more in this Trust Tip on quickly changing news and this Trust Tip on other news outlets’ errors.

Use quick, easy transparency sidebars

When we as journalists explain our process, we allow users to see how our story came together, why we put resources toward covering the story and why we chose to include certain people, images and words. One way you can do this is by creating boxes or sidebars dedicated to transparency. These boxes allow you to explain their process and decisions within the story itself. Users don’t have to click to another page to learn more about the journalism — they get the splash of behind-the-scenes information alongside the story they clicked on. On your COVID-19 coverage, write one to three sentences that answer these two questions: Why did you do this story? How did you do this story? Include this information in the story in a pullout or shaded box. Read more in this Trust Tip.

Engage on social media

Invest in your relationship with your audience by using social media to have conversations. Ask your followers how they’re feeling, what they need from journalism and how you could help them. Also, answer questions, be human, delete misinformation and try to keep coronavirus comments concentrated. Read more in this Trust Tip.

Tell your audience you won’t tolerate misinformation

As you are working to produce credible stories about COVID-19 that can help save lives, there are other people sharing links that are totally false or contain misinformation. Deleting and correcting misinformation is important — especially now, when facts could literally save lives and misinformation could help COVID-19 spread throughout communities. On social media and other commenting platforms, tell your audience that you are working hard to share accurate information during this crisis and will be deleting comments, links or photos that are untrue or misleading. Be specific about where they can ask questions or inquire about something they heard. Read more in this Trust Tip.

Don’t let political squabbles dominate coverage

Make sure your audience’s attention is on what’s happening in your own communities, not on national stories they can get anywhere else. You may not have control over the national political stories that are being written by your ownership group, the AP or other wire services. But you can control how prominently you present those stories and whether or not you decide to amplify them on social media. In the politicized world we live in, highlighting stories that play the “blame game” or focus on red vs. blue could increase the complaints of bias and be distracting for users. When everyone in your newsroom is working so hard right now, we don’t need to provide easy opportunities for criticism. Instead, focus your attention on helping your community understand this pandemic and what it means for them locally. Read more in this Trust Tip.

Explain that information might change

While covering COVID-19 and other fast-changing stories, we should all be working to make sure our users know the information we are reporting is the most accurate and best information we have at that moment. But we should also be working to help them understand why this is the case. Try writing a couple of sentences that explain how information may change and point people to where they can find the most up-to-date information. Write about how you are updating stories and dealing with changing information and share that with your users. Or, consider hosting a Facebook live with a reporter who has covered the mark recommendations. Read more in this Trust Tip.

Demonstrate that your visuals aren’t altered

Newsrooms hear a lot of accusations that they use photos and videos to misrepresent or even manipulate reality, and this has continued during the pandemic. If you hear accusations or suspicion around your newsroom’s visuals, or around syndicated images you’re publishing, invest some time in explaining why the images are trustworthy. Post your raw video. Point to a wider take from a photoshoot, including diverse angles. Walk people through your editing process. Consider doing it both in text and in a video, so those involved in the shooting and editing are explaining it themselves. Then keep the links handy, and reply to questions and accusations with evidence. You won’t convince everyone, but you will inject information into a conversation based on fear and misinformation, and that can persuade reasonable people that you’re responsible and ethical. Read more in this Trust Tip.

Disclose stimulus funds and explain the ethics involved

As a journalist in a newsroom, you likely don’t have control over whether your newsroom accepts a loan from the government or applies for grants from a foundation or company. But what journalists CAN control is being transparent about any funds received. So if you’re newsroom is receiving any funding, grants or loans support, make sure to explain that to your audience. You can do this by writing a story, going live on social media or doing a short story on air. Explain how you are maintaining editorial independence despite receiving the funding. Then make sure to include a brief note that links back to the longer explainer any time you cover something related to that company, foundation or loan program. Read more from this Trust Tip.

Help your audience navigate the news

Consuming the news is an overwhelming experience. Between COVID-19, local news and election updates, there is legitimately a lot to know. It’s also true that paying continual attention to breaking news alerts is exhausting. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 71 percent of Americans say they need to take breaks from COVID-19 news. But we as journalists can help offer a path through the news that helps the public stay informed without being consumed by and alarmed by repetitive updates. Try talking directly to your audience about ways they can be smart about their news consumption. Let them know that you take breaks from the news (you do, right?) and they should too. Suggest newsletters, podcasts and other products that are thorough but not overwhelming. Consider offering this advice in a newsletter, an online story, a Facebook Live video or even on-air. Ask for their suggestions and questions. Acknowledge their experience and build trust by being a resource they can turn to. Read more from this Trust Tip.

Show you’re part of your community

During this pandemic, we’re facing many of the same situations our community members are — both individually and as an organization. We have business and workplace challenges. We’re adapting to not being able to see family and friends. We’re worried about our family’s health and grateful to the people whose jobs put them at risk. It’s a good time to be part of the conversation that’s happening in the community. To do this, try sharing images that demonstrate what your newsroom and your community are going through, and focus on messages that highlight what you have in common. You could do this by creating photo or video slideshows, personal videos of staff or posts on social media. Messages of encouragement, thanks and hope may be a good place to start. Read more from this Trust Tip.

Do not neglect basic, but vital, information

People are balancing a lot of different news content while wading through conflicting and contradicting versions of reality. As journalists, we can’t always share facts that bring clarity. But we can organize our pandemic coverage around ways to shed light on what is known and not known about the status of COVID-19 in your coverage area. We can also keep some facts separate from other storytelling. Don’t make someone find and then read through a three-day-old story about the governor’s press conference to know whether their kid’s summer camp will be open or where they can get tested for the virus. Consider replacing some daily stories with a fantastic, useful landing page that answers these questions. Make it prominent on your home page. Push out each day’s status in a newsletter update. Keeping the answers to these questions updated over time is a big commitment. But from a trust perspective, being a reliable resource during a public health crisis seems worth the investment. Read more from this Trust Tip.

Acknowledge what you don’t know

A common practice in journalism is to address what is known and leave out what is unknown (we like certainty.) But that’s not always the best option when it comes to building trust. We know that when news consumers don’t understand the choices journalists make, the conclusions they reach are often not flattering ones. They’re not giving us the benefit of the doubt. By being upfront about things that aren’t yet known, journalists can remove some of that speculation and assure their audiences they’re continuing to ask the important questions. Instead of ignoring it, try explaining what’s missing from your reporting. Before deciding a story is done, look at the list of questions you set out to answer and identify the ones you can’t yet answer. Then look back to your story and consider ways you could acknowledge those gaps and let your audience know two things: why they’re not yet answered and how you’re still pursuing them.

Read more from this Trust Tip.

More (free) help from Trusting News

  • Our trust coaches are available to talk through your challenges or help brainstorm ideas one on one. Request a session here.

Trusting News 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 American Press Institute, Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation.

Trusting News

Advice from the Trusting News project team: Follow along…

Mollie Muchna

Written by

Digital engagement editor at Arizona Daily Star. Project assistant with TrustingNews.org.

Trusting News

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

Mollie Muchna

Written by

Digital engagement editor at Arizona Daily Star. Project assistant with TrustingNews.org.

Trusting News

Advice 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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