News organizations have been losing credibility for years, and the reasons are many. Too often, we journalists have been arrogant and said, in effect, "Trust us, we know what we're doing." But today, journalism is under attack, and we have to explain why people should trust us.
There are many things publishers can do to improve credibility, said Tina Kaiser, an investigative reporter for Die Welt in Germany, during a talk with a group of journalists and communicators from the College of Europe.
In her talk, at Die Welt's Berlin headquarters, Kaiser described the publication's policies and mentioned how they were applied in specific stories, such as a series about Arab gangs in Germany.
See her tips below:
(1) Transparent corrections.
Admit your mistakes quickly and fully, and be transparent about how they were made. If an organization simply says, "this information was incorrect", the public is left with doubts about why a correction was determined to be necessary. Was it an honest mistake, a careless breach of journalistic standards, or inaccurate information provided by a source? Without some explanation, readers might assume that a correction was made because of undue pressure and influence from some interested party.
(2) "The making of" stories.
For any kind of long-term investigative or enterprise stories, a news organization ought to also publish an explanation of how information was obtained, who the sources were, where journalists traveled to interview people and do research, how the information was double-checked and verified, and other information that demonstrates the care and professional standards used.
(3) "The making of" an interview.
For extensive interviews, especially of controversial or well known figures, a short story should include information about when, where, and how an interview was conducted. Was it in person, by telephone, an email exchange, at the person's home or office, how long it lasted, when it took place, who else was present, if the interview was recorded on video or audio, and how it was edited. Readers or viewers should know the context of the questions and answers. Was this a friendly, casual conversation, or was it a tense, confrontational interview? All of this detail can help users judge the trustworthiness of the information.
(4) Photograph all sources.
Reporters should take photos of all the people they interview, even if there are no plans to publish the photo. Internally, editors can use photos to independently verify that people are who they say they are and whether their information can be trusted.
Publishing photos of key sources who agreed to be named and photographed helps readers see the professional standards used to collect and verify information.
(5) Photograph key locations and story elements.
Kaiser mentioned that Der Spiegel could have avoided a huge scandal by asking their reporter to produce a photo of a sign saying "Mexicans Keep Out" that he said was on the outskirts of a Minnesota town he characterized as Trump territory.
It turns out that the sign didn't exist and that this reporter, Claas Relotius, had systematically invented many details about the town and its people, and that he had done this on many other stories for Der Spiegel.
(6) Publish documentation.
For investigative and long-form stories, publishing links to source documents, which is now possible on the internet, allows readers to see the original source material.
(7) No anonymous sources.
There have to be exceptional reasons — protection of the physical safety of a source and their family, for example — and the editor-in-chief should explain them to the public.
Journalists are now in competition with innumerable information sources, many of them either carelessly inaccurate or intentionally misleading and false. We have to earn the public's trust. As Kaiser pointed out, we have to be much more transparent about our professional standards. We can no longer assume that people regard us as an authority.
Transparency is a way of explaining professional journalism standards to the public and distinguishing brands that deserve our trust from those that make a business of sensationalizing, exaggerating, and distorting news and information.
James Breiner is a former ICFJ Knight Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. Visit his websites News Entrepreneurs and Periodismo Emprendedor en Iberoamérica.