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How to demonstrate trustworthiness with your coronavirus coverage

Mollie Muchna
Mar 17 · 8 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.

More (free) help from Trusting News

  • We’re taking applications through Friday for our next Trust 101 class. Participants analyze their own audience’s mistrust and create a customized plan, with our help, for their newsrooms.
  • 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

Updates 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

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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