Credit: Image by simonwhitebeard from Pixabay

At a time when social media is rife with false claims and the public holds little trust in journalists, news organisations will be thinking how they can fix these problems.

There are a number of steps that can be taken, as discussed on a panel at Impress’ Trust In Journalism conference (14 November 2019). This includes creating industry-consistent values and standards, training journalists to better represent underserved communities, and having more transparent funding models.

News deserts

When local newsrooms close down, news deserts form and communities are left underserved. What takes its place is misinformation, click-bait and conspiracy online.

To try and bring coverage back to these deserts, Facebook and the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) have worked together, along with nine regional publishers, to create 80 new local journalist roles through the Community Journalism Project.

Will Gore, head of partnerships and projects at NCTJ, explained that the key objective of the scheme is to give journalists the most essential skills and ethics to best serve their communities.

“Our view is that one marker of trustworthiness is whether somebody has the relevant skills to do journalism well, and education and training is one element within that.”

However, Gore added the caveat is that the initiative is only a two-year pilot. He hopes that Facebook will opt not only to continue to fund the project, but also expand it in due course.

‘Nutritional labels’

They say you are what you eat - and nutritional labels offer you details of what you are about to put in your body. In the same way, NewsGuard informs the public about which news sources are trustworthy to maintain a healthy media diet.

The browser extension, created in 2018, labels news sources with either a green or red icon based on nine criteria. It indicates whether the site repeatedly publishes false stories, whether opinion content is clearly labelled and whether ownership and financing information is publicly available.

Anna-Sophie Harling, head of Europe for NewsGuard, explained that their goal is to inform the public so they can decide for themselves if the source is reliable or credible.

"We’re not telling people what to read or what not to read but the information about the source is there if they want it," she said.

NewsGuard reaches out to the outlets that it rates. It has prompted a quarter of the websites to improve their practices. It also offers a whitelist to advertisers to give them better guidance on websites that can be trusted to protect their brand safety.

Ethical advertising

Advertisers have been extremely cautious of brand safety in the wake of a range of scandals where advertising has appeared alongside terrorist content and hate speech.

Naturally, advertisers want to be seen as widely as possible, but an advertising model based on views is vulnerable to clickbait headlines being used to crank up engagement rates. It also forces advertisers to think about whether appearing on high-engagement articles could reflect poorly on their business.

The Conscious Advertising Network is a group of organisations that is set out to stop this advertising abuse. It encourages partners to take responsibility that they do not fund misleading content and clickbait.

“Unfortunately what has happened is that good quality journalism has been lumped in with cat videos as inventory to be bought and sold within the current system,” explained Harriet Kingaby, co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network.

She aims to start a conversation around what advertisements are acceptable to internet viewers, and whether advertisers can fund quality journalism.

“For example, two-thirds of LGBTQ+ content is unmonetisable because the words within it are blacklisted by numerous organisations," said Kingaby - though some publishers are taking a stance their own stance on this problem.

"The current system is not funding [journalism] very well, and it is also excluding voices from its funding model, so I think there are many conversations to be had.”

Common shared standards

In terms of making sure high standards of journalism are implemented without the threat of a 'red rating', Reporters without Borders’ Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) aims to publish a set of indicators of trustworthiness by the end of this month. It offers guidelines for news organisations to practice sensible reporting.

While social media platforms like Facebook has said it will do more to crack down on clickbait in News Feeds, the temptation to post sensationalist headlines is still there for publishers because of the rewards that algorithms present.

Olaf Steenfadt, project director at Reporters without Borders, said it means that complying with existing professional ethical codes of conduct is another matter. He suggests that standard-setting by a third-party body, like JTI, to pre-empt legislation would be an effective way of the industry being held to a consistent standard.

"If something is voluntary, you need a very good reason to go the extra mile, to implement a standard in your organisation," he said. "We are now reaching this point in our own industry to pre-empt legislation - like the industry getting its act together before the government kick in."

Learn how quality journalism can thrive in an era of misinformation at Newsrewired.com on 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets

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