Most news is “optimised for speed”, with the audience not a part of the process until the very end, when the journalist has already moved on from the story.
“The public gets to come into play after the fact. The public cannot see how journalism works and it’s hard to trust,” said Jennifer Brandel, co-founder and chief executive of Hearken, speaking on a panel at the International Journalism Festival in Italy today (8 April).
Brandel joined Mandy Jenkins, head of news at Storyful, and Aron Pilhofer, James B. Steele chair in journalism innovation at Temple University, to discuss how news organisations could “optimise for trust”, offering examples of initiatives and newsroom processes that could result in a better relationship with the public.
“Showing how decisions get made earns the public’s trust,” said Brandel, whose people-powered approach to storytelling is designed to involve the audience early into the newsgathering process.
Referencing research from Trusting News, a project from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, Brandel emphasised the benefits of involving the public into your reporting and participating in conversations.
“Journalists have an opportunity and really an obligation to be listening to the public.”
Jenkins pointed out that the majority of people in the United States are satisfied with policies at a local level.
Cuts to staff numbers have hit newsrooms around the United States differently, she added, with one in five journalism jobs now located in New York City, Los Angeles or Washington DC.
This makes finding an answer to why the public doesn’t trust journalists simple – “they don’t know who we are”.
“People used to actually know journalists in their town, they often went to school with people who became journalists, they lived down the street.”
News organisations who do not work with journalists based in the towns they are covering often “parachute” reporters in when a news story breaks or the place suddenly become newsworthy, such as during limited periods of time during an election campaign.
“When we’re talking about trust… we need to show up and we need to be authentic about the communities that we say that we cover. We need to reflect the communities,” she said.
She pointed out two possible solutions to this issue. Collaborative reporting projects, such as 100 days in Appalachia, are a good way of creating a representative news source for people in a particular region, and “a great example of what you can do when you can get people who have passion about this together”.
Adapting national news projects that work to a local level, such as ProPublica’s expansion to Illinois, would also be a way to tackle this, as could hiring journalists to work remotely from the regions they are covering.
“It’s one thing for the industry to be hiring in people from those places, which is already pretty difficult, but it’s a whole other thing to hire these people and keep them in the communities where they come from.”
Pilhofer also offered a number of steps news organisations can take to improve their relationship with their audience. He advised journalists to show their work, and pointed to The New York Times publishing transcripts of their interviews.
The Wirecutter, a tech website which generates revenues from Amazon affiliate links, also includes a section called “why you should trust me” in articles, offering information about the author and what experience qualifies them to make particular product recommendations.
Reflecting on how news organisations’ websites are designed and how the different types of content are marked and presented, from news analysis pieces to opinion, should also be part of the process.
Readers should not need an instruction manual to be able to navigate a news website, and journalists should also be aware that any tags applied to their stories on a website will not travel with the story on social media, making it less clear if a headline shared on Twitter for example is a feature or an opinion piece.
Valuing accuracy over speed and fact-checking thoroughly before publication, as well as being more aware of the reader community are a key part of the process. “Speed kills, we need to slow down.”
News organisations should also be thinking about how to measure trust.
“When trust is the ultimate metric, the metrics we use, which are really designed for advertising, do not serve us,” he said.
To help determine which stories people cared about, NPR developed a tool called Carebot, that monitors metrics such as story rebirth or graphics lingering.
“Trust is not a badge, it’s not somethings you wear on your chest. Maybe it is in the analogue world – in the digital world it is not. I am sorry, that is really bad news, but it is true.”