Journalists, let’s invest in trust, not just expect it

We know trust in the news media is decreasing. I mean, it’s really not a pretty picture.

Let’s start with this stat: A 2016 Gallup poll revealed that just 32% of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in mass media.

This line is going the wrong direction. And see that sharp decline from 2015–2016?

Here’s another one, from POLITICO: Nearly half of voters, 46 percent, believe the news media fabricate news stories about President Trump and his administration, according to an October poll.

Nearly half think we make things up.

Now that we’ve established the seriousness of the situation, do you know what you can do about it? Do you feel like you have the strategies you need to combat misinformation, to share the value of your work and to communicate your own credibility. Do you understand enough about the nature of the distrust to address it properly?

And here’s the real question: Are you willing to do something about it, beyond wringing your hands and blaming lazy news consumers? Are you willing to accept that just continuing do good journalism is not a proactive enough approach?

We’d love to help.

What we do:

The Trusting News project is designed to demystify the issue of trust in news. We research how people decide what to trust, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We don’t accept that this huge mountain of distrust is unscalable. We want to empower newsrooms to do something about it.

We’ve learned in our 8,728 user questionnaires and 81 in-depth interviews with news consumers that a lot of what people say they want is what we’re already doing. We just do a lousy job of pointing it out. For example … people say they want journalists to tell multiple sides of a story. Obviously, journalists say they already do that, but viewers aren’t recognizing it. What if we injected a bit of language into a story explaining that’s what we’re doing?

We have the opportunity to tell effective stories about our standards, our mission and the value we offer our communities.

The strategies we’re proposing don’t involve adopting a big initiative or making changes to your CMS. These are easy and low-risk and we really think they can move the needle on trust.

Our partners:

We’ve been funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute for almost two years, and we just received Knight Foundation funding to expand the program.

We added a staff member, Lynn Walsh, whose enthusiasm for solving big-picture journalism problems was most recently ramped up by her term as the national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

We’ve worked with about 50 newsrooms so far:

These newsrooms worked with us to interview their own news consumers about how they decide what to trust.

These newsrooms tested social media strategies designed to build trust.

Seven newsrooms have begun a new round of newsroom testing in November:

  • WCPO TV in Cincinnati
  • WIFT Public Media in Harrisburg, Pa.
  • The Fort Collins Coloradoan
  • The Enid (Oklahoma) News & Eagle
  • Community Impact Newspaper group in Austin, Texas
  • The Jefferson City (Missouri) News Tribune
  • The Day in New London, Conn.

How to get involved:

We’ll be adding many more newsrooms in January, and I can’t wait to tell you who we have on board already. If you’d like to be considered to be among them, let us know here.

Partner newsrooms commit to try out just a few new things each week and log how it goes for them. They get the support and insight of our project’s staff and the other partner newsrooms, which range in size, geography and medium.

You can see a draft of the strategies here, along with a look at how the project will work and what partners would be committing to. You can hear me talk for a few minutes about the project in a video here, and here’s a slide deck in case that’s useful as well.

How to follow along:

We’re starting this Medium publication so we can easily update you on what our newsrooms are trying, what our research is revealing and what you can do in response.

We’ll also let you know of other ways — events, webinars, etc. — where we’ll be offering training and sharing ideas.

Closing thoughts:

The problem of mistrust is one journalists need to own, including that:

  • Some journalism is unethical and irresponsible, and it can be hard to tell the difference between that and what we do.
  • People don’t understand what we do, and our traditional habits, processes and products don’t usually address that void of information.
  • We need to talk about ourselves and what we do, not just hoping the work speaks for itself.

This is a problem for all responsible journalists to solve together. Let’s go.

The Trusting News project is funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the Knight Foundation.

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