This article first appeared on Edelman, as part of an essay series on trust in the year ahead that the Edelman Trust Institute requested from leading experts in academia, business, NGOs and government.
Being a journalist right now is not easy. You face daily menace and harassment from every corner: repressive governments and would-be autocrats, abusive Tweets and Facebook posts, as well as physical threats and an unprecedented risk of being killed for your work. Add to that the chronic stress of working in an industry bedeviled by existential financial crisis.
The reward for coping with all this? Hardly anybody trusts you. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update: A World in Trauma, trust in traditional news media is at a record low (though trust in social media is even lower). While the public’s trust in most institutions (including government and NGOs) isn’t strong, its faith in news media is even feebler. You know it’s bad when people say politicians are more credible sources than us journalists.
Increased political polarization and a swamp of disinformation deserve much of the blame, it is true. Increasingly, journalists aren’t viewed as independent voices, but perceived to have hidden agendas, making them either “with us or against us.” Meanwhile, factbased news is competing for attention with rage-inducing, button-pushing disinformation. Some “bad actors” are actively targeting journalists’ credibility— and too often succeeding, thanks to the enabling environment of today’s social media ecosystem.
Case in point: Intrepid 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winning Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa. My organization, the International Center for Journalists, working with the University of Sheffield and Ressa’s Rappler news site, recently conducted a forensic analysis of hundreds of thousands of social media attacks against Ressa over the past five years. Nearly 60% of these attacks were specifically designed to undermine her professional credibility and, by extension, public trust in her journalism.
What can be done to reverse this hostile tide? Better self-regulation by the social media platforms would help, as might other policy interventions— though there is currently little consensus about what these might be, and many journalists worry that government actions ostensibly designed to help the media often end up doing the opposite. That is why many journalists believe the best strategy is simply to “put your head down and do your job.”
I don’t believe that’s good enough. It is time for a fundamental rethink of journalism, from how it is produced and distributed to how it interacts with audiences to how we measure impact. Restoring trust requires numerous actions, large and small, that journalists and the organizations that still employ them can take. Think of the suggestions that follow not as some kind of shovel-ready blueprint for change, but rather as an initial exploration of possible steps that might make a difference.
One suggestion comes from an unexpected source: Pope Francis. The pontiff recently articulated a vision for journalism that speaks directly to rebuilding a culture of trust. The journalist’s mission, he said, is “to explain the world, to make it less dark, to make those who live there fear it less and look at others with greater awareness, and also with more confidence.” In other words, don’t stop at uncovering dark doings; supply the light, too.
Many journalists, of course, are already doing plenty of both. They reveal the “dark doings” by helping bring down corrupt governments in Slovakia, uncovering human trafficking rings in Nigeria, and documenting an escalating hunger crisis in Afghanistan. They also provide some light, reporting on the lives of people in São Paulo’s most under-resourced and under-covered communities, on successful voter turnout efforts in the Navajo Nation, on what countries can learn from Estonia on cybersecurity, and on and on.
Without cutting back on essential investigative journalism that exposes problems, are there other smart ways media organizations can figure out how to do more reporting on solutions? And how else can newsrooms evolve their coverage to be more relevant to readers? A few suggestions:
- Fight disinformation head on. Newsrooms could take a more holistic approach to covering disinformation, scrutinizing the “Infodemic” the same way they’ve tackled every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. They can ferret out the figures behind disinformation campaigns, and regularly report stories like this, uncovered by researchers, that found that just 12 Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts were behind the majority of misinformation across the platforms on COVID-19 vaccines. Imagine if newsrooms did this kind of work on a regular basis, identifying misinformation pathogens as they crop up, rather than waiting for them to spread. News outlets could team up regularly with researchers and think tanks with the computing and analytics power to identify such social media trends.
- Connect better with audiences. Research shows that people engage with news more when a piece of journalism answers the question all readers often instinctively ask: “What does this mean for me?” Why not do more stories that take a big issue and bring it down to its impact on a community and less horse-race style political coverage? One example: Code for Africa, a civic engagement organization, regularly launches data-driven projects that, for example, help people calculate the gender pay gap in any African country, or see competing prices for medications at pharmacies near them.
- Put trust in the frame. In every story, journalists should ask themselves, “How can I approach this piece in a way that helps people trust it?” That may include highlighting solutions instead of just problems; including a diversity of voices; and directly involving the audience in the piece — by crowdsourcing community input, for instance.
Edit for transparency
Few outside journalism really know how news is produced. This opacity contributes to suspicions about journalists’ bias. The “story behind the story” offerings by some news outlets (like the New York Times Insider) are a step in the right direction. Media organizations should consider going further by:
- Better distinguishing opinion from straight news. As opinion pieces and news analyses have proliferated across all types of news outlets, so have more opportunities for audience confusion. In a 2018 study, just 43% of people said they could easily distinguish news from opinion on Twitter and Facebook.
- Sign on to efforts such as The Trust Project, a consortium that has developed a series of eight “Trust Indicators” that news organizations can use to show who and what is behind a news story. Research by the University of Texas at Austin found the indicators improve a news outlet’s credibility. The indicators audiences paid most attention to were “the description of why the story was written (noticed by 44%) and information about the Trust Project (noticed by 43%).” The project, which launched in 2017, has just 200 media partners worldwide to date. 2022 should see that number grow much higher.
- Measure and communicate the impact of news. Following up on a story’s impact makes good editorial sense, whether it’s a big investigative piece, or a purely local story about some ordinary problem. A Brazilian outlet, Gazeta do Povo, attempted to do just that a couple of years ago, producing an impact newsletter for its audience. A citizen journalism effort in India, CGNet Swara, has tracked hundreds of tangible impacts of its reporting (electricity turned on, teachers paid) and lets its audience know.
It’s the distribution, stupid
In today’s social media dominated world, controlling how content is distributed has become a complex challenge that many news organizations struggle to meet. Research from the Reuters Institute shows, not surprisingly, that news is less trusted when seen on disinformation-infested social media platforms. The media has tried to respond with push notifications and newsletters galore, reaching readers through their phones and inboxes. That’s a start. But journalism needs to work more creatively to figure out other ways to gain more control over distribution of its product. For instance:
- Create consortia. We’ve seen great editorial collaborations like the Panama and Pandora Papers. But there are other types of collaborations, ones focused on distribution and co-branding, that could help build better connections with readers. These might take the form of experiments like the Ohio Local News Initiative that is banding together small outlets and community groups across the state under a single umbrella. Or the effort by Switzerland’s largest media companies to create a single log-in for all their sites to reclaim a direct connection with readers. Initiatives like these could also yank audiences out of their own echo chambers and direct them to new sources of information. Or consider #FactsMatter, which brings together fact-checkers and news organizations in Nigeria with social media influencers (i.e. trusted messengers) to help get the accurate news they produce to larger audiences.
- Think big. News organizations came late to the digital age and have been playing catch-up ever since. Yet a few journalistic mavericks were actually ahead of their time. Roger Fidler, at the now-defunct Knight Ridder, invented the tablet in the 1990s, 15 years before Steve Jobs, but newsrooms were too fat and happy to pay attention. We need to reignite that sort of innovative spirit — and this time, back the big ideas it generates. We don’t yet know what will be the Next Big Thing. What we do know is that the time for complacency is long over.
Trust needs to sit squarely in the center of every aspect of the journalistic enterprise, from reporting and editing to marketing and distribution.
Whatever you think of these specific ideas, the overall thrust should be clear: Strengthening journalistic credibility cannot be an afterthought, something that news media turn to after doing the “real work.” This is the real work for news organizations and those of us who value and support them. Trust needs to sit squarely in the center of every aspect of the journalistic enterprise, from reporting and editing to marketing and distribution. The stakes are high. Journalism faces not only a crisis of trust but an existential financial crisis as well. Yet people are much more likely to pay for news that they trust. Solve one crisis, and you might just solve the other.