It’s a word we’ve been hearing a lot lately – but not necessarily from our newsrooms’ audiences.
Americans overall believe the news media plays an important role in democracy, but decreasingly trust that we journalists are doing a good job in this role.
Trust remains highest for local news sources, but is also slipping.
That’s what the Trusting News project, led by Joy Mayer, is trying to address in “helping journalists earn trust and demonstrate credibility.”
The project, an RTDNA partner funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute and Knight Foundation, began in January 2016 with in-depth surveys and interviews of journalists and news consumers to determine what factors contribute to trust, or lack thereof.
The data yielded three key themes in how news organizations establish trust: “tell their own stories,” “engage authentically,” and “deploy their existing fans.”
Project Manager Lynn Walsh says, “What we are seeing is the more transparent we, as journalists, are about how we do our jobs and the more open and willing we are to engage with our users and ask for feedback, the more likely it is that users will trust us and be willing to engage with us.”
A handful of newsrooms have been testing some transparency strategies based on the initial findings.
WCPO in Cincinnati was one of those stations, and Mike Canan worked on the project there. He says that, while trust takes time to build and can be difficult to measure, there’s been some positive feedback from audience members who “appreciate WCPO’s efforts to earn trust, make changes and better serve them.”
This month, Trusting News has launched a new round of experimentation with 30 print, digital and broadcast newsrooms, including 5 managed by RTDNA News Director members.
According to Walsh, this round is focused on refining which strategies work, examining whether there are differences in what works for newsrooms of different sizes and mediums, and seeing how implementing various strategies fits into newsroom workflow. She says:
News Director Adam Carros with KCRG, one of the newsrooms newly on board with the project, sees any effort to “fight against that erosion of trust” as worthwhile if it means retaining an audience when there are more information options than ever and the news media is increasingly under attack.
“Our goal for this project is to share what we are learning, with the help of our partner newsrooms, with the journalism industry as a whole. We hope we can point the industry in the right direction and provide examples and best practices for how to increase trust, credibility, and engagement with users.”
“The more they know about how we cover the news, the more we hope we will gain or maintain their trust,” Randy Reeves, News Director at KOMU, another newsroom which has signed on, agrees.
“The Trusting News project tackles the most important issue facing journalists today: The lack of trust viewers feel towards journalism. Trust and transparency are two of the pillars of our station and company,” says Deborah Collura, President and General Manager of TEGNA station WCNC. By participating in the project, WCNC is “pulling back the curtain on how our journalists produce, develop and deliver the news.”
It’s a common theme the news managers we talked to are interested in exploring through the project: Overt transparency, or being more deliberate in taking time to explain how your newsroom works and why. Rebuilding trust does not necessarily mean changing anything about the reporting itself.
Says Carros, “I think journalists tend to take for granted that our stories are fair and balanced reports and don’t take the time to point that out to the audience.”
Trusting News project is digging into how to implement that overt transparency.
“We are finding it is not just enough to explain that you spoke to people from differing perspectives,” says Walsh. Rather, it takes explicitly explaining that you work to make your coverage fair and balanced, and identifying each of the steps your newsroom took to do so.
It also requires being sincere, direct, engaging, and human when interacting with your audience.
Finding ways to demonstrate credibility is more important than ever in the midst of declining trust in news, and with newly announced Facebook changes giving preference to trusted news sources.
That means being willing to experiment and fail sometimes, says Canan, recently named Senior Director of Content Strategy for Scripps. He hopes to bring what he’s learned on the project to the stations he’ll be working with.
Whether mistrust stems from misunderstanding, guilt by association or legitimate concerns, Canan says, “Ultimately it is incumbent on us to bridge the gap.”
Find out more about the Trusting News project, including some strategies to try in your newsroom, at trustingnews.org.