In their Trust Project, Richard Gingras, head of Google News, and Sally Lehrman, a fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, argue the need to rebuild trust in news and they propose a set of practical tactics. I want to suggest further steps to support their campaign.
The reforms Gingras and Lehrman propose:
* News organizations and journalists should craft and publish statements of mission and ethics.
* Journalists should disclose their background to reveal both levels of expertise and areas of personal interest and conflict.
* For disclosure and accountability (and credit, I’d add), news organizations should reveal all the hands that work on content: researchers, editors, “even lawyers.”
* News organizations should aspire to an academic ethic of citations (links=footnotes) and corrections. They would also be wise to disclose their methodology — i.e., whom they interviewed, what they researched.
I agree with all that and with their contention that greater trust will yield greater value for news (through increased loyalty, engagement, attention, and promotion for worthwhile work).
A few added suggestions:
Google itself — particularly Google News — can encourage these behaviors by favoring news organizations, journalists, and other sources that follow standards such as these. This is not a manipulation of search. It is a proper use of legitimate signals of quality. Over the years, I’ve spoken with Google News creator Krishna Bharat and, on This Week in Google, with Google spam-killer Matt Cutts about their constant quest to find signals of originality and authority to improve search results and news ranking. For example, to avoid putting the 187th AP rewrite of a Washington Post story atop a cluster of articles, Google looks for citations referencing the Post, thus indicating that the paper has done original reporting and so its articles should get higher priority.
In particular, Google can encourage news organizations to cite sources through linking. News organizations and writers should be adhering to stricter standards for citation through linking: show us your sources; show us your work; let us judge those sources and that work for ourselves. This has clear benefit for the public. Journalists will learn that scrupulous linking can build trust, as Gingras and Lehrman argue. Rigorous citations through links will give Google more signals to judge quality and will give us all more data — which Google should publish — about what sources are cited across news organizations, so we can identify journalistic echo chambers.
Google’s prioritizing of original work over diluted rehashes has a further economic benefit: it supports the work of original journalism and reduces the traffic rewards everyone and his uncle gets today for deciding to publish his own “take” on someone else’s original reporting and work.
To encourage statements of disclosure, Google could revive its recently killed author program, this time giving prominent links not to the picture of the writer but to the writer’s disclosure statement when and if one exists. I’m not sure a mission statement is necessary for every writer on the web (what’s my mission past truth, justice, and the internet way?). But disclosures are beneficial. Here are mine. (There you’ll find that I own shares of Google and have had my travel paid to speak at Google events but do not take fees from the company.)
Google can also support, encourage, and help distribute better corrections. Eight years ago, I wished for a means to subscribe to corrections related to news I’ve read — and, more importantly, stories I’ve written or linked to on my Twitter or Facebook feed or blog. Google is getting close to a means of doing that. Consider how good Google Now has become at recommending news to me based on the stories and topics I’ve been following on Chrome. (Calm your privacy panic; it’s fine with me; it’s a service that brings me relevance and value.) For example, Google knows I’m interested in the LG R watch and so it shows me news about when the gadget is going to be released. Why can’t Google also recommend that I read corrections that have been posted to stories since I read them?
I’m not suggesting that Google can or should do all this on its own. But as Gingras and Lehrman lead as individuals, Google can lead as a corporation, promulgating open standards that support better behavior and greater trust. With those standards, every curator could improve its recommendations.
Journalism schools should take a leadership role, too. At CUNY and most journalism schools, we require courses in law and ethics. We could help support these standards by having our students adhere to rigorous standards of linking and citation in their reporting and by having them publish disclosure statements. We can also help by fostering broader discussion of and research in trust. I’ll volunteer for that.
At a much higher level, trust is also a matter of business models. On the plus side, trust builds economic value, as Gingras and Lehrman contend. On the negative side, mass-media economics have had a significant role in corrupting media, news, and trust in them. As I will argue in my new book, Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News (out next month), importing mass-media models built on reach and frequency to digital news has resulted in the commodification of media and our epidemic of clickbait, cats, cynical manipulation (this link will change your life!), and endless takes on takes to scrounge up pageviews and ad impressions even as their value plummets toward zero.
Chartbeat’s Tony Haile has been beating the attention drum, arguing that selling time over space will lead to greater engagement, higher quality content, greater performance for advertisers, and greater value for media. Rewarding media for value over volume would be a big step in the right direction. I argue in Geeks Bearing Gifts that knowing the public we serve not as a mass but as individuals and communities and serving them with greater relevance as a result will also yield greater value for them and thus for media. I further argue that seeing journalism as a service that helps people and communities meet their goals — and measures its effectiveness that way — rather than as a content factory that merely assaults their eyeballs with stories and messages will result in more meaningful relationships and greater accountability and thus greater trust and value.
There are other threats to trust rooted in business, of course. Cable TV’s continued reliance on mass-media economics is what leads to missing-jet-mania and ebola-panic-mongering. This is why I find promise in Reuters new TV news service, which will no longer fill a clock and pimp for viewers but will instead offer personalized, relevant, up-to-the-minute, and nonrepetitive newscasts for individuals.
I worry greatly about native advertising/sponsored content/brand journalism’s potential to poison trust, confusing readers as to the source of content and devaluing news and media brands. This is why we must have serious discussions about the ethics and standards of native advertising (I hope to hold a summit on the topic at CUNY next year). Here, too, Google is already helping by warning that poor disclosure of sponsors’ involvement in the creation of content will lower its status in search.
Finally, I always tell my entrepreneurial students that when they see a problem like the one that Gingras and Lehrman identify, they should not stop at pointing to it (as journalists usually do) but should find the opportunity in it. The proliferation of content and confusion and the crisis in journalistic trust can lead to many entrepreneurial opportunities. The king of corrections, Craig Silverman, is developing Emergent, a new tool to help identify misinformation on the web, and is building a business around it. Storyful developed systems to find and verify witnesses’ accounts of news events and News Corp. bought it.
I see more opportunities in building systems and companies around:
* gathering and analyzing signals of authority;
* building relationship data and analysis for media companies to increase their relevance;
* membership structures for media organizations to give clients — the public — greater voice in the use of journalistic resources;
* establishing new metrics for news as a service (did we improve your life and your community?), enhancing accountability;
* creating the means for trusted, recipient-controlled communication that is free of trolls and other online plagues (as opposed to email, Twitter, et al, which are sender-controlled);
* advertising and revenue models that value quality over volume;
* new forms of TV news that do not rely on cheap tricks to fill time and build volume but instead get rewarded for delivering value; and on and on.
Technology companies — not just Google — and investors, media companies, universities, and foundations can invest in and support such innovation to build trust.
To rebuild journalism, news, and media around trust means rebuilding not just some behaviors but more fundamentally journalism’s business models, metrics, forms, and fundamental relationship with the public. That work is in the interest of members of the media ecosystem: news organizations, media companies, journalists, advertising agencies, networks, brands, and, again, Google and other internet companies. Project Trust is a start.