People tell each other stories all the time to make sense of the world. At the moment, various storytellers are competing for our attention. Their motives vary wildly: to surprise, distract, entertain, confuse, create envy, win votes, inspire hatred, make money and, in some cases, to perform a public service.
In our current moment we are drowning in stories with competing narratives. How do people look for and find stories that are credible and trustworthy?
In this post, I would like to show some of the tactics and strategies that news organizations committed to quality and public service are using to attract users and financial support.
At the heart of all of them is a radical transparency about their finances, owners, political leanings, editorial staff, newsgathering processes and decisions about whether or not to publish material.
A shortage of credible content
As I wrote in a previous post, the digital advertising ecosystem is toxic: “The system is automated, driven by opaque proprietary algorithms. Those algorithms are designed to maximize targeting of ads to individuals’ tastes and behaviors while also minimizing the cost to the advertiser. It looks like an efficient business model. But it hides disinformation.”
News media publications that fail to take control of their own advertising sales and ad content put their credibility at risk. They might be running ads that promote objectionable content or that steer advertisers’ messages to such sites.
This flood of misleading and false information has accelerated a decline in public trust of all institutions, including the press, government, religious faiths, business, science, and many others.
Credibility has economic value
Paradoxically, this decline in trust creates an opportunity for news organizations whose mission is to inform and serve the public. In economic terms, the shortage of credible information creates more value. People will be more willing to pay for it.
A few years ago, I wrote about how credibility was becoming the new currency in journalism. Several publishing trends were driving this, both economic and editorial:
- A pivot away from advertising and toward user-generated revenue
- A pivot toward relationships with users rather than scale
- Focusing on user needs rather than those of advertisers
- A trend toward building a community rather than a massive audience
- Quality rather than quantity; unique information for niche audiences
- Generating social capital rather than financial capital
- Collaboration rather than competition
Because of these trends, public-service news organizations are seeking new relationships with their communities. They are emphasizing transparency rather than a theoretical objectivity in order to establish credibility.
Be transparent about content
- 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.
- “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.
- “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. Whether it was 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Be transparent about finances, ethics, owners
Most news organizations have wrongly assumed that the public understands the journalistic and ethical standards they adhere to. They don’t describe the verification processes they use or how they decide when something is credible enough to publish or when it needs further verification.
An independent for-profit company, NewsGuard, gives credibility and transparency ratings to more than 6,000 news organizations based on their compliance with professional journalistic standards.
Among the transparency ratings are disclosure of the owners and shareholders of the publication and their the political leanings, as well as the biographies of the owners and content creators and any potential conflicts of interest.
How trust translates into financial support
A model of this kind of disclosure is elDiario.es in Spain. It publishes quarterly financial results with details on revenues and expenses, including the average salaries of employees. The publication is free online but more than 60,000 people now pay for it to support its mission of independent journalism.
elDiario.es also publishes the names, email addresses, and biographies of all members of their board of directors, as well as all of their employees. The staff responds to every complaint, according to Ignacio Escolar, co-founder and CEO of the publication.
In the interview linked to above, Escolar said that staff members send him the names of people who cancel their membership payments because they disagree with the news coverage or opinion columnists.
Escolar writes to them directly and explains the editorial policies. Sometimes he responds to five in a day, sometimes three, sometimes none at all. He believes these chats are worth the trouble. “I’ve learned a lot about the users from this,” he said.
New initiatives to restore trust
When faced with all the challenges to credibility from automated lie-spreading algorithms, you have to be an optimist. Otherwise you would give up.
It can be discouraging to see how readily people believe big lies repeatedly told to undermine the press and other democratic institutions. However, as Christine Schmidt of Nieman Lab reported, quality journalism organizations are responding with many initiatives to restore trust.
People everywhere are looking for sources they can trust and believe in. They are having trouble sifting through all of the conflicting opinions and information. They want help.
In a world of virtually infinite supply of information, there is a strong demand for credible, trustworthy information. Any news organization that can honestly label itself as worthy of trust and then deliver that promise is in a position to build a community and earn its financial support.
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.