Journalists, point to what makes your protest coverage credible

Mollie Muchna
Jun 4, 2020 · 8 min read
A line of people sit in Tucson, Arizona, during the first weekend of protests after the death of George Floyd. Mollie Muchna, a project assistant with Trusting News, also works as a digital engagement editor at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson. Photo by Edward Celaya

Our country is in mourning. People are outraged. And we as journalists are doing our best to cover what is a complex and quickly evolving story.

It’s a sensitive space to navigate, is emotionally taxing to cover (especially for BIPOC journalists), and can physically put you in harm's way. Yet as journalists across the nation work overtime to bring the latest protest coverage, many people in our communities aren’t seeing the news we’re delivering as a public service. Instead, it’s likely you’re facing accusations of bias and hearing things like why are you covering only violent parts of the protest while simultaneously hearing why aren’t you covering the riots and looting more? Or even worse: You like when these events happen because it boosts page views.

It can be frustrating and demoralizing when our very motives are called into question. But this is an important moment for journalists to convey their credibility with their audience. We aren’t powerless. Through this difficult coverage, we have the opportunity to demonstrate that we’re committed to accuracy and fairness, and that we stand for the health of our communities.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, we’re right there with you. Trying to think about anything else beyond just keeping information updated can seem impossible right now. But if you’re not sharing your commitment to accuracy and fairness with your audience, who is?

The Trusting News team has compiled some quick, easy, actionable tips to help you demonstrate your credibility to your audience.

These trust-building tips don’t include overhauling your editorial process; instead, most of these things would take less than five minutes to implement in your newsroom and are immediately actionable. They are as simple as including italicized paragraphs at the top of the story, running a box with a story, writing a one-time newsletter, altering chatter on a social media post, or hosting a Facebook Live. But these small steps toward transparency could be the difference between being seen as a reputable presence in your community or not.

Be thoughtful in the visuals and words you use

The majority of the public are not witnessing these protests firsthand, which means they are relying on journalist’s coverage to provide a picture of what it looks like in their community. While photos of burning dumpsters, police cars and tear gas might be the most shocking images, remember as journalists we’re here to provide context. If the majority of a protest night was peaceful, don’t get swept up in just picking the most distressing images as the photo to attach to every online story. While important to share the more difficult photos, be mindful of using display photos that accurately represent the complexity of the event.

Similarly, be clear and thoughtful in the language you use in stories. Research shows the words journalists use while covering a protest can alter the public’s perception of the event. As we strive to provide accurate coverage, pause for a moment before publishing to make sure the language you’re using is as direct, clear and fair as possible. Check your bias, and think about why you might use the word “riot” instead of “protest,” or why you might choose active or passive voice. Then include a note or sentence in the story explaining your word choice (we wrote more about how to do this here.) This can be especially important in headlines and in social media chatter where stories or videos often appear with little context.

Share the full breadth of your coverage within each story

Users often enter your coverage through one story — and they might have consumed or only have been exposed to that one story. So even if in one night, you cover multiple angles of a story, or are reporting from different areas of a city that might all look very different, you can’t assume that your audience will find or see all the different pieces of reporting you’re doing.

And if the story they came to first was about vandalism and looting in the final hours of a protest, how would they know the majority of the evening consisted of peaceful protests? That’s why it’s important that we show the breadth and depth of our coverage while we have our reader's attention. So if you’re covering multiple facets of the protest, include that information in the story itself with links to all your other coverage, or mention it on air. Create a Twitter thread or a one-time newsletter that links to all your coverage so users have a full picture of what’s actually happening. Go beyond just collecting links to include a sentence or two about your goal of reflecting the complexity of the situation.

Also consider sharing what you don’t do. Especially if you’re a smaller news organization in a crowded media landscape, let your audience know if you’re leaving press conference coverage or overnight coverage to other news outlets. Don’t let people assume it’s because you don’t care.

Explain that your goal is accuracy and fairness

Even as people on all sides of this issue question journalists’ motives and intentions, this moment can be an opportunity to remind our audience that as journalists, we’re here to be a public service — to document this moment in history and convey what’s happening as accurately as possible. So reiterate your commitment to accuracy and facts, and share how you’re trying to be fair with your coverage. Are you trying to elevate diverse voices? Say that. Are you working to cover all angles of the story? Say that. You can do it in language on social media, in newsletters, in the text story itself or on air. And as you move forward, start anticipating when your audience might accuse you of giving unequal weight to either perspective and proactively put language to the story that explains how you strove to be fair.

Explain what you don’t know rather than just avoiding it

As journalists, our job is to know things. So when we don’t have answers, it’s typical that we just leave out whatever is unknown in our reporting. But that’s not always the best option for building trust. Our audiences are constantly making assumptions about our motives, and we know from research that these assumptions are usually pretty unflattering. If you aren’t telling your audience that you’re seeking answers, it’s likely they’ll assume you’re not asking the important questions — or even worse, assume that you’re actively trying to suppress information. If you don’t know how many protesters were arrested, say that. If you don’t know if the police deployed tear gas or smoke bombs, say that. And then keep your audience updated on how you’re actively pursuing that information.

Explain how breaking news works

Things evolve quickly during breaking news situations. The story might be changing every hour, and information — even from official sources — might be updated multiple times. So be upfront with your audience and acknowledge that information might change, but tell them you’re committed to pointing them to the most accurate information possible. (Here’s how newsroom partner WITF did this.) Be extremely clear about where information is coming from, whether it be a press release from the police department or from eyewitness accounts. Doing this helps the audience understand our process and what we are doing to prevent mistakes.

Quickly correct misinformation

Like with many major breaking news situations, rumors related to the protest have been rampant. As an organization, don’t be a part of letting rumors or possible misinformation spread. Instead, let your audience know what information hasn’t been verified yet, and remind them you’re working to find the best information. Tell your audience that you’re committed to accuracy and don’t tolerate misinformation, whether that be on social media or in the comment section (see how our newsroom partner the Coloradoan did this). Admit that we as journalists don’t always get everything right, but explain how you strive to be accurate and make it clear you’ll be quick to correct any misinformation. And if there is a correction in a story, be transparent about it. Include an editor’s note at the top letting people know the story was updated and when.

Be human, and ask for help

While we as journalists often set aside our feelings in pursuit of providing the fairest coverage as possible, there are a lot of feelings to process right now. So as Lynn Walsh recently wrote for Trusting News, instead of pushing those feelings aside, try talking to your audience from a place of humanity. Remind your audience that journalists also live in the same city, are also worried about the issues happening, and care about the future of the community. Remind them that you’re human too, that you’re struggling and grappling with making sense of this all. It’s also OK to ask your audience for their help and perspective — it’s an opportunity to show your audience that your organization values their different life experiences. Ask them to join the conversation. Listen. Show your community that you’re in this together, that you’re all trying to make sense of because being honest and sharing that can help build a relationship with them. And building a relationship can build trust.

Ask for questions and feedback

During this time of unrest, it’s important your audience knows you’re a community resource. Part of being a community resource is being open to listening, answering questions and having a dialogue with the actual people consuming your content. So start incorporating asking for questions and feedback into your coverage (ideas on how to do that here.) Check in with your audience. Ask them how they’re doing and ask what things need more clarification. Then listen and respond with empathy.

This is especially important as newsrooms (which mostly do not reflect the diversity of their communities) strive to reflect the complexity of community experiences and perspectives. Use this as a time to state clearly that your goal is to fairly and accurately represent the people you aim to serve — across age, race, gender, class, neighborhood and political leanings. Journalists need communities’ help to accomplish that goal, and they simply must be responsive to what they hear.

Explain how you’re keeping your staff safe and what they’re up against

During the first few days of protests, journalists were attacked by police 130 times, according to Nieman Lab. And those are just the documented attacks. There have been countless other anecdotal accounts — water thrown, phones destroyed, physical and verbal harassment — by both police and civilians. Journalists covering the protests are physically standing in the middle of contentious and tense situations in order to provide accurate news for their communities (not to mention are risking their own health by being in close proximity with so many people). But does your audience understand what an investment that is? What if they knew just everything your staff was up against? Understood all the steps your organization is taking to try and keep journalists safe? What if we actually talked about what is happening to journalists on the front line? (Here’s an example of how WCPO did this.) Think about how you could shine a light on the ways you’re working on behalf of the community.

How Trusting News can help

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…

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

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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