After decades of declining trust in journalism, here’s some good news. Introducing the Trust Project—a global effort to help readers identify reliable news.
First, the bad news: People have little trust in journalism. That’s true across the country and in much of the world. That isn’t simply bad news for journalists. Journalism, after all, is supposed to be the immune system of democracy, as Craigslist founder and philanthropist Craig Newmark puts it.
But then, you probably knew all that. And this: Over the past couple years, focus on trust in journalism—or lack thereof, and questions about what passes for journalism anyway—has been in the public eye like never before. Thank digital technology in part: Macedonian teenagers making up stories and, to sell ad dollars, intentionally creating “fake news”—before that term was weaponized. Meanwhile, Russian-controlled bots and other nefarious actors gamed (and continue to game) algorithms to surface toxic misinformation from the dark corners of conspiracyland. Yet the fact is, the trust problem isn’t new.
Gallup polls started tracking trust in the news in 1972. (That same year news anchor Walter Cronkite was voted in another nationwide poll “most trusted man in America.”) They have asked a question about trust in the news annually since 1997; not coincidentally, technology began changing dramatically the dynamic of journalism in the late 1990s. And in general, trust in the news has been declining for 40 years—though there was a slight uptick in 2017.
Veteran journalist Sally Lehrman has watched the decline in trust over the past couple decades with particular dismay. She has won awards for her coverage of science and health issues—an area of journalism, she notes, where rigor in reporting is essential. She also directs journalism ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara. As for the decline in trust, she says, “It didn’t just happen.”
Economics have something to do with the decline. Editors have understood this for years—and they have voiced concerns about how the chase for clicks in digital environs was worsening both quality and ethics. Sometime back, Lehrman says, she began shifting the conversation—and went to technologists and editors and asked: “Can we flip the picture?” Or, as she put it in a conversation with the podcast for news research organization Storyful recently: “Can we make it possible to use the digital environment, to use algorithms as a force for good and a force to emphasize and promote quality?”
In 2014, Lehrman began building a formal network of news companies willing to take steps to instill greater trust in the journalism they produced. In a series of workshops spanning two years and hosted by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Lehrman guided senior news editors through a series of in-depth interviews with users of news, looking for ways to combine their needs with journalism’s highest values. The interviews were conducted across the United States and throughout Europe. And to get a broad picture, the interviews brought together a diverse range of news users—in terms of race and class, geography and generation and gender. Fundamentally, Lehrman says, the interviewers wanted to find out: “What do you trust in the news? When do you value the news? When do you trust it? And when has your trust been broken?”
Last year in a piece for The Atlantic, Lehrman described the project-in-progress in terms of what it isn’t: “The journalists working on this project aren’t attempting to prescribe the perfect news diet for the public,” she wrote. “That would be self-serving, pompous, and dull. No, we’re asking people to tell us what they want and need from the news.”
One hopeful insight from the exhaustive process, which involved more than 75 news organizations, was this: That there is a broad array of people who want news they can trust. And people who are engaged with the news really do want to know how the sausage is made. The interviews also revealed the fact that, while journalists and news consumers seemed to agree on what makes a story trustworthy, consumers didn’t feel they had enough underlying information to assess if a story passed their own trust test.
Putting together expectations from both sides, the process led to the creation of a new set of transparency standards to help people easily assess the quality and reliability of journalism. Those standards were shaped under the aegis of a nonpartisan enterprise headed by Lehrman and hosted by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and with partners around the world. It’s called the Trust Project.
Starting last November, leading media companies representing dozens of news sites began to display Trust Indicators, which provide clarity on the organizations’ ethics and other standards, the journalists’ backgrounds, and how they do their work. The indicators also make clear what type of information people are reading—news, opinion, analysis, or sponsored content and advertising.
The German press agency dpa, The Economist, The Globe and Mail, the Independent Journal Review, Mic, Italy’s La Repubblica and La Stampa, Trinity Mirror, and the Washington Post are among the companies that were part of the first wave. Along with that, the Institute for Nonprofit News is developing a WordPress plug-in to facilitate broader implementation by qualified publishers.
So what are the indicators? At the core, there are eight:
› Best Practices: What are your standards? Who funds the news outlet? What is the outlet’s mission? Plus commitments to ethics, diverse voices, accuracy, making corrections, and other standards.
› Author Expertise: Who reported this? Details about the journalist who wrote the story, including expertise, and other stories they have worked on.
› Type of Work: What am I reading? Labels to distinguish opinion, analysis, and advertiser (or sponsored) content from news reports.
› Citations and References: For investigative or in-depth stories, greater access to the sources behind the facts and assertions.
› Methods: Also for in-depth stories, information about why reporters chose to pursue a story and how they went about the process.
› Locally Sourced: Lets people know when the story has local origin or expertise.
› Diverse Voices: A newsroom’s efforts to bring in diverse perspectives.
› Actionable Feedback: A newsroom’s efforts to engage the public’s help in setting coverage priorities, contributing to the reporting process, ensuring accuracy, and other areas.
Working groups of news executives from diverse organizations collaborated to hone the editorial attributes of each Trust Indicator. Development and design working groups, which included sites that launched in November 2017 as well as the BBC and Hearst Television, envisioned how they would appear and work on digital news pages.
Part of the work was technical, and part of it involved solving problems with design: If you’re adhering to these standards, how do you present that in the digital sphere—on your site or with individual stories?
Some outlets already disclose information included in the Trust Indicators. But the new system standardizes this information across the industry, making it easier for both the public and news distribution platforms to find it.
Roland Freund, deputy editor-in-chief for Germany’s dpa, notes that the agency already provides detailed supplementary information to its customers—news organizations— for stories it covers. “In the future these details will be displayed to internet users as part of the Trust Project,” he says. “Everyone will be able to benefit from this transparency, because good journalism is about being trustworthy.”
Given the platforms through which people find news today, the Trust Project effort includes social media and search engine players as external partners. Call it a bridge between newsrooms and technology companies. So at the same time that news sites are bolstering their transparency through the Trust Indicators, digital platforms aim to incorporate them into the way they display news stories.
Here’s how the indicators work under the hood: Each indicator is signaled in the article and site code, providing the first standardized technical language for platforms to learn more from news sites about the quality and expertise behind journalists’ work. Google, Facebook, Bing, and Twitter have all agreed to use the indicators and are investigating and piloting ideas about how to best to use them to surface and display quality journalism.
COMING TO YOU LIVE
The rollout didn’t just happen online. The Newseum in Washington, D.C., hosted a Trust Project event in November 2017 on “Rebuilding Trust in Journalism.” And in December, the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose hosted a West Coast rollout on “The Trust Project: Using Technology To Restore Faith in the News.” Among those joining Lehrman for those programs were Richard Gingras, vice president of news for Google; Cory Haik, publisher of Mic; Devin Slater, design director for The Globe and Mail; and Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.
Newmark was an early and key backer of the Trust Project through his philanthropic fund. He approaches the project not as a professional journalist but as someone who wants journalism to do the important work of helping us understand complex and urgent issues, and to foster informed debate. “I’m a news consumer, not a news professional,” he has said. “I just want news I can trust.” And, as he told Storyful, “News consumers need a way to tell media companies what we expect from them, the types of news we can count on and will pay for. The Trust Indicators set standards for media outlets and allow newspeople to commit to good faith reporting that’s worth buying.”
Along with funding from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Trust Project has received financial backing from Google, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Markkula Foundation.
NO SILVER BULLET
Despite the broad involvement of leaders in journalism, it’s fair to say that nobody thinks the Trust Project offers a silver bullet. Other efforts in the media ecosphere come at trust from different angles. Take the Open Brand Safety framework, launched in 2017 with the goal of researching sites that traffic in fake news and hate speech—and helping advertisers steer clear. Or there’s the Hamilton 68 Dashboard, which tracks content tweeted by Russian bots and trolls; backed by the German Marshall Fund, it is named for one of the Federalist Papers in which Alexander Hamilton warned against foreign meddling in U.S. elections.
Who is the audience for the Trust Project? Based on the years of interviewing, Lehrman breaks down news users into four broad categories. First, there is what she calls the “avid news user”: someone who actively seeks out quality news with solid reporting, and is willing to put in extra effort to make sure stories hold up—including cross-checking with different sources. After that, the user might push a story out through various social networks.
Not everyone has the time, energy, or desire to do their own investigation, though. So one notch below is what Lehrman describes as the “engaged user.” This is someone who still wants solid news—though perhaps they’re a bit overwhelmed by the cacophony of what is presented as news today.
Third, there is a user who is a bit less engaged. They don’t so much pursue the news as “let the news wash over them,” as Lehrman puts it. That’s understandable—there’s so much out there. And they might find themselves, as one study by the Center for Media Engagement at University of Texas at Austin puts it, “befuddled and distrustful.”
Finally, there is a user who is “actively angry and disengaged.” That’s a description that seems to speak to the tenor of our times. And Lehrman recognizes the valid reasons behind some of that disengagement. “Some members of the public are frustrated with journalism that seems thin, uninformed, biased against their community and replete with argument, anger, and violence,” she wrote for The Atlantic. “They complain about opinion presented exactly like news … They want more humility from journalists, more recognition that in spite of journalists’ best aspirations, we do sometimes get it wrong.”
The participants of the Trust Project have begun their work with the first couple types of users in mind—those actively seeking out trustworthy news. They hope that these users, leveraging social networks, can then, as Lehrman says, flip the picture—and bring along members of the third group—folks who more or less let the news wash over them. As for convincing the angry and disengaged? That’s a tough row to hoe.
Lehrman understands that it is also natural for journalists and news organizations to ask: If they’re now expected to provide more information and background and are already pressed for time, how can they possibly manage this, too? As editors look at pinched staff resources, and publishers eye the bottom line, they want to know: How are we going to pay for this?
Part of an answer to that is that some Trust Indicators are implemented at a site level, then carried with every story. And part of an answer, project participants hoped, would lie in development of new digital tools for journalists to show indicators efficiently. With that in mind, the Trust Project convened a group of designers in a problem-solving effort hosted at the Washington Post. And they came together with a sense of doing far more than designing visual widgets. As Lehrman recounted in her recent Storyful conversation: “These designers started thinking about, ‘Well, how do we turn something like this process of adding more information about your sources into one that actually benefits the reporting process?’ They started thinking about things like creating a tool that would enable journalists to show their sources and also start building a better database of who their sources are and what kind of documents they’ve used. There are creative ways that you can take this idea of a transparency tool and actually enhance the reporting process as well.”
In other words, the efforts to pull back the curtain on journalism through Trust Indicators shouldn’t just make for more transparent stories. They should lead to better journalism.
David Walmsley, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, explained to online magazine OZY why his paper felt compelled to be a part of the Trust Project. “For far too long, we have sat there and said, ‘Let the story speak for itself,’” he said. “Then we leave this vacuum, and it’s whoever speaks loudest gets heard.”
Lehrman is optimistic that social media and search platforms will continue to amplify the value of the Trust Project. “Google was involved from the very beginning,” she notes. “Facebook has come in, Twitter is involved.” They are experimenting with ways to display the Trust Indicators to flag that the stories are from a source that has committed to trustworthy reporting—or not.
At the same time, Lehrman doesn’t expect platforms to solve the problem for news users. Nor does she want the Trust Project to give any news partners a free pass. Fundamentally, she says, we don’t want people blindly trusting the news media. Instead, both journalism and society at large are better served when people look to the media and read and watch and listen with skepticism—but at the same time, they look to it with the goal and the expectation of becoming more informed.
One way of thinking about the Trust Indicators is like nutrition labels for news, Lehrman says. Not everyone will look. But for those who want to know what they’re consuming, there are now standards—and the info is now available.
Since this effort is called the Trust Project, it’s helpful to remember how trust actually works among human beings. As Lehrman recently noted in an interview with OZY, “It’s not about convincing people to trust you. It’s about earning their trust.”
READ MORE about the Trust Project at thetrustproject.org.
STEVEN BOYD SAUM is the editor of Santa Clara Magazine.
DEBORAH LOHSE is assistant director of media and internal communications at SCU. She was previously a staff journalist at the Mercury News, Wall Street Journal, and Money Magazine.
FRANZISKA BARCZYK is an illustrator, art director, and GIF maker whose work has been featured by Walrus Magazine, Advertising Age, and NPR.