How the media business can build more trust during the coronavirus pandemic

News organizations need quality content, an understanding of audiences and the right platforms to reach and serve audiences to succeed.

July 10, 2020
Category: Ethics & Trust

With a dizzying amount of information being reported and amplified during the pandemic, it’s no surprise that roughly half of Americans say that they do not trust traditional news sources to deliver information about COVID-19 accurately. They were even less confident in finding correct information through online news and social media sites.

Many look to the government and health leaders who continue to hold press conferences to brief the country on the situation and provide safety and procedural information. Others rely on the press to convey the information and deepen their understanding through news coverage.

However, with the barrage of information and trust in mass media on shaky footing, many are tuning out and run the risk of being less informed altogether.

The pandemic has also left Americans with more questions than answers about their local communities and what to do to stay safe, healthy and to support the well-being of the global community. With social distancing and self-quarantine guidelines in place, there is also a growing sense of isolation as so much of our daily communication has moved even further online.

What can media organizations do to help restore and build public trust?

Every news organization needs three things

Quality content, an understanding of the audience and the right platforms to reach and serve the audience are most important to a news organization’s success.

These elements — content, audience and platform — also have to align. For example, AARP shouldn’t use Bloomberg’s QuickTake video series to connect with its readers about retirement savings because the audience simply isn’t watching. But a 30-second advertisement on cable television? That seems like a more fruitful strategy to reach the intended audience, as cable tends to reach older demographics. Moreover, the editorial nature of content morphs to best fit the medium it’s being delivered in.

How did we get off track?

In late 2015, Facebook reported over 8 billion video views, per day. News organizations shifted their content strategy to accommodate the constraints of social media platforms because they represented the largest audience ever amassed in the history of mankind.

Autoplay and controversial guidelines for what counts as a “view” aside, the desire to capture as much of that huge audience’s attention as possible made media companies overzealous. Instead of serving the audiences they had, they started serving the audiences they wanted. This pivot meant the end game for publishers was to capture pageviews and grow as quickly as possible.

As a result, the content rarely fit the audiences as media organizations looked to expand and serve the imagined “everybody” instead of serving their target somebodies.

The industry’s false focus on audience impressions has also had a negative impact on the quality of the content. There has been a rise in implicit bias and sensationalism used in news headlines and articles, all designed to drive shares and grow profits.

Not only were the platforms, content and approach incompatible with audiences, but many news organizations also failed to deliver the intimate and personalized experiences that their readers care about. A media organization should feel as though they are speaking to their audience with a platform and not trying to use a platform for the sole purpose of reaching a new audience.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a unique opportunity to reset

With COVID-19 bringing renewed attention to how media companies can drive value for audiences, they have a unique opportunity to reset and reevaluate how content, audiences and platforms all align.

The audience is so much more than just eyeballs

Treating audiences like eyeballs only is not the answer. Millions of dollars are spent each year on display advertising, but how effective is this approach in the long term? We’ve learned that eyeballs alone aren’t enough.

Building relationships, securing subscriptions and attracting event attendance requires more of a commitment from audience members and tends to bring a higher rate of return. More importantly, publishers and journalists should listen to their readers and do something more akin to service journalism to best engage and serve the audience.

There’s power in seeing the audience for who they are: human beings with complex emotions and needs who need to be heard.

Focus on owned audiences with the right technology

To restore audience trust, media companies must focus on journalism that is more transparent and participatory, especially with its owned audiences.

Using the right technology to interact with audiences will also serve media companies well in building and restoring lost trust and facilitating meaningful conversations.

For example, DMG Media has moved the distribution timing of its email newsletter to follow the government’s coronavirus press conference at 5 p.m. to help readers break down the most important news from the briefings. Similarly, the Financial Times has launched COVID-19 newsletters, webinars and podcasts, in addition to removing its paywall on coronavirus content. FT also has a channel on the messaging app Telegram to keep its readers and listeners as informed as possible.

Engage in dialogue

BuzzFeed News, Gannett, Newsday and others recognized the opportunity early on and organized 15 individual text messaging campaigns on the Subtext platform (a company I am the co-founder and chief strategy officer of) to deliver updates and keep subscribers informed about what COVID-19 would mean on both national and local levels.

By delivering information to their audiences and then also crowdsourcing information, they’ve been able to tailor their communication to best serve the needs of their audiences, foster honest discussion and deepen relationships.

Their approach of talking with and for the audience, rather than at them, is a powerful example of working in service of the audience.

David Cohn is a co-founder and chief strategy officer of Subtext, a text-based subscription platform that allows journalists, media companies, and other creators to communicate with their subscribers directly via text. He is based in Berkeley, California, and can be reached on Twitter @Digidave.