Earlier this week, the News Media Alliance hosted its inaugural trustXchange event, bringing together journalists, academics and media experts to discuss how the news media industry can work together to regain reader trust.
TrustXchange was hosted at Gannett’s corporate headquarters in McLean, Virginia. During the course of the afternoon, several of the top media professionals, researchers and academics in the field took the stage to share the work they’ve been doing to better understand the trust relationship between readers and the media, and to discuss what we might do going forward to create a more comprehensive trust landscape.
For those who missed the conversation, we’ve put together five key themes from the day to help guide you in your efforts to build trust among your readers.
Communication is key!
It may sound crazy, but it turns out journalists are not always very good at communicating. While we all know how to write a news story, the American Press Institute found that we’re not so great at sharing with readers how we crafted our stories. API’s Jeff Sonderman, the deputy executive director of the organization, shared research about how little the public understands about journalism. There’s a huge disconnect between the news media and news consumers.
What does that mean? We need to stop using confusing journalism jargon. No more “op-ed” when we should say “opinion”— we may know what op-ed means, but it’s not clear to the average reader, especially when they aren’t reading our op-eds in print and don’t get the benefit of contextual clues based on placement.
We also need to explain precisely what we mean by “anonymous sources” why we’re using them. Sonderman reported that about 40 percent of news consumers don’t understand how anonymous sourcing works, and 10 percent believe it means the journalists don’t know where that information came from at all. That may sound crazy to those working in the media, but it’s easy to understand the confusion when you think about it. So those of us in the media need to do a better job in our stories of explaining where our information came from and why a source chose to remain anonymous.
When everything is news, nothing is news.
Amy Mitchell, the director of journalism research at the Pew Research Center, noted that the breadth of the digital landscape allows people to get their “news” from more sources than ever before — including many that package opinion and propaganda as news. During the 2016 presidential election season, for instance, approximately 24 percent of people got their news about the election from the campaigns’ social media posts — which are not exactly unbiased, objective sources.
According to Mitchell, the fact that so many people — 43 percent — are getting their news online, often from search results and social media shares, means it’s harder for them to know the source of their news unless they’re paying very close attention. That means it’s harder for readers to determine if the source they’re relying on is one that can be trusted, or one that’s full of hot air.
These same audiences know there’s a problem. More than half — 64 percent — believe that “fake news” and spin cause major confusion about basic facts, and 56 percent want the platforms to step in to try to restrict the false information that’s flooding their feeds. If the news media industry wants to gain the trust of these people, we need to find a way to educate our audiences on what constitutes real news, so that regardless of whether they’re on our homepage, they can make solid judgment calls about the quality of their news diet.
Transparency is essential for trust.
Education of and communication with our audiences will only work if we’re truly transparent, as Sally Lehrman explained. Lehrman leads The Trust Project, an endeavor of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics to bring trust signals to news outlets and help them be more transparent with their readers. News outlets that work with The Trust Project get specific trust indicators to apply to their websites and news stories to make it easier for readers to learn who they are and how they work. Among these indicators are things like a clear “About” page that explains the news organization’s history and ownership, how they’re funded and what their goals are as an organization (e.g. Are they objective or do they have a specific agenda?), as well as author bios for all of their journalists — people want to know why a particular journalist is the best person to write a particular story.
Lehrman said that when people got news from sites that had the Trust Project indicators and seal available, readers were more trusting of those news sources, which means that making a little extra effort to be clear about who we are can go a long way in making our audiences trust that we’re serving them well.
Engagement isn’t just about clicks.
When we think of engagement in news, we often think of how many “likes” a Facebook post received or how many retweets a post garnered, but we need to think of how we engage one-on-one with the members of our audience, said investigative multimedia journalist Lynn Walsh. Walsh is part of the Trusting News project from the Reynolds Journalism Institute, and she encourages journalists and editors to get out there and really interact with readers.
People not only want to feel like journalists are part of their real-life communities, but they want to engage with and understand them. That means social media editors and journalists need to stop hiding the negative comments or letting them get buried, and respond. When someone posts a comment on your news story suggesting that it is fake or false, it’s your duty to reply. Walsh suggests asking commenters to elaborate on their complaint: What facts do they think are false? Which source(s) are they suspicious of? Why do they feel that you’ve done them a disservice? Only by asking them to explain their views can we find out why we’re falling short in their view.
Walsh notes that engaging with the audience not only raises the chances that they’ll trust you in the future, but it makes us all better journalists. Reporters often take for granted that our readers have the exact same understanding of a subject that we do. By willingly engaging in conversations about why some readers don’t trust us, we can improve ourselves and create better news products for those readers in the future. Engagement also shows that we’re not so self-reverential that we can’t learn more or make mistakes. By acknowledging that we’re not perfect and being willing to admit our shortcomings, we can prove we’re worthy of their trust.
Be part of your community, don’t simply cover it.
Part of what’s working in rural areas is having news from within the communities, not just about them. That’s what Sam Ford, of the Rural Journalism Innovation Lab, encourages other news outlets to try. Ford has been working with The Ohio County Monitor in Kentucky, helping the small local news outlet find new ways to cover the community it serves, and one of the practices involves putting the “community” back in “community news.”
The Monitor, in an effort to make sure they have the most complete news for their readers, has asked their audience to become part of their team: “No news organization is able to go to every church function, attend every meeting, or be at every event. We will rely on your support and submissions if we want to have the best news site possible. If you attend a function you think the community would like to know about take a picture or two, jot down a few notes on what took place and The Ohio County Monitor will post it.”
By allowing the audience to participate in producing the news, outlets are able to represent even more of the community in their stories, giving underrepresented populations more of a voice. The practice also gives readers the opportunity to learn more about how the news is produced, giving them a better understanding of the media and, ideally, helping them develop a stronger trust in their local outlet.
Want to know more? You can check out the #trustXchange hashtag on Twitter for more great insights from our audience and speakers. We’ll also be releasing a digital insights package in the coming weeks that will include information on all of our experts, their trust-building initiatives and all the details of the conversations shared at the event.
Jennifer is the Alliance’s reporter on trends and insights, as well as the social media manager. Prior to joining the Alliance, she spent more than a decade working in news and magazines in New York City. She is the author of the young adult textbook, “You’re Being Duped: Fake News on Social Media” (Enslow, 2019).