If every media outlet published high-quality, fact-checked, impartial news, the public would trust us. Right?
Wrong, according to Riyad Emeran, head of content strategy, Dennis Publishing, who spoke at the AOP Crunch: Truth and Trust in Journalism event last week.
The very concept of 'quality journalism' is problematic, Emeran said, as the perception of what is a quality story differs widely. A journalist would probably say 'a well-researched, accurate, objective reporting.' But that is often not what the public thinks.
More often than not, people prefer to have their opinions confirmed rather than being proved wrong, he continued. Although journalists like to believe that revealing the truth results in building trust with the audience, that is not always the case. Much like quality, truth is seen through different lenses. It does not mean that facts are always rejected but people may interpret them in different ways.
Social media, on the other hand, is a very different world. Lines between freedom of expression and incitement to hatred, opinion and misinformation, or free speech and hate speech are hard to draw.
Journalists would not need to be too concerned about it if most people did not consider social media their primary source of news, as noted in the Reuters Institute’s report. And we generally trust the people we follow and are less likely to scrutinise their claims.
Initiatives that are trying to fix the trust problem through content verification have mushroomed over the past few years. Facebook hired an army of third-party human fact-checkers whose job is to verify problematic content often flagged by the algorithm. However, how the algorithm works is still a mystery and so is the way Facebook makes its editorial decisions about promoting, downgrading or removing content.
The platform is trying to bring some transparency into its decision-making through its recently created Oversight Board that brings together more than three dozen well-known figures, including former Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. Their job is to arbitrate individual disputes between Facebook or Instagram and its users, as well as advise on policies.
Other verification startups, such as NewsGuard and Our.News, rate the credibility of news websites based on a range of criteria. Although methods differ slightly, the purpose is to provide the user with information about the outlet so they can make up their own minds about whether to trust it.
Transparency is welcome but its ability to convert conspiracy aficionados to well-informed citizens is questionable. First of all, users already need a certain degree of media literacy to even understand the criteria on which news outlets are rated, such as ‘responsible news gathering’ or ‘avoidance of deceptive headlines’.
Then, for those who mistrust the 'elitist' mainstream media or have been traditionally misrepresented by them, credibility rating from New York-based, white middle-class men-led startups may not be exactly persuasive.
In fairness though, while social platforms like Facebook and Twitter can just shut accounts down for reasons not fully understood by their users, these tools are open about how they rate websites and how these can improve their credibility. In the world of murky algorithms, this effectively means giving some of the control back to the publishers, according to Anna-Sophie Harling, managing director, Europe for NewsGuard, who also spoke at the event.
Who says what is trustworthy matters. Minority voices are still underrepresented in mainstream media and when communities do get attention, they are often portrayed as a problem to be solved rather than just people.
"That has overtime decimated the trust among these communities," said another panellist Kemi Alemoru, features editor at gal-dem.
She explained that when what people read in the papers does not reflect their lived reality, there is no reason for them to trust the news. gal-dem, a media company that gives voice to people of colour and those from marginalised genders, tries to fill this gap through inclusive reporting that focuses on stories that are missing from mainstream news coverage. For example, while we are obsessing over banana bread, journalists at gal-dem talked about what lockdown looks like for South Asian and black people who work for a taxi or a delivery company. As a membership-based publisher, they explore how the community can come together and help each other.
Although the relationship between truth and trust is complicated, credibility cannot exist without inclusivity. The journalism industry still has a long way to go.
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