February 10, 2021

The path to improve reader trust may be simpler than we realize.

Sure we should develop artificial intelligence tools that serve up accurate information to readers faster and more accurately than humans can. But perhaps we can also find ways to listen and engage with readers better than we have in past decades?

For example, perhaps we can improve the corrections process so that readers are working — in crowdsourced fashion — to improve the accuracy of our news and information? Perhaps we can thank and reward readers who help us improve accuracy rather than treating them as nags.

A loss of trust

Most journalists know by now that the public trust in the news media is at a historic low. Axios reported in January that Edelman’s annual trust barometer showed that 56% of Americans agreed with the statement, “Journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.”

In a survey by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, researchers showed Americans’ growing distrust in institutions such as business, government and the media. It noted that 68% of Americans agree “you can’t believe much of what you hear from the mainstream media” and 63% believe that “media distortions and fake news” are a very or extremely serious threat to America.”

What fewer journalists seem to talk about is that the distrust in media isn’t only driven by political divides and news illiteracy. It’s also driven by a relationship gap, a communication breakdown between news organizations and the public.

Pew Research found 68% of Americans say they lack confidence in news organizations’ willingness to admit when they have made a mistake.

Meanwhile, a Knight Foundation report in 2018 showed nearly 90% of citizens said their trust in news organizations depends on the news organization’s commitment to accuracy and willingness to openly correct mistakes. Most U.S. adults, and 90% of Republicans, say they lost trust in news organizations. On the bright side, 69% said that trust can be restored.

A more recent study from Knight Foundation in 2020 showed that Americans — especially Republicans — haven’t just lost confidence in the ideal of an objective media, “they believe news organizations actively support the partisan divide.” The study showed Americans are concerned about bias in news, intellectual dishonesty by reporters and ideological framing of stories. Meanwhile, 74% of Americans say the spread of misinformation online is “a major problem.”

A simple solution

In our research the last three years at VettNews, we find a vast majority of newsrooms we speak with admit their corrections process is clunky and hasn’t changed much in decades. They are receiving reader feedback and making corrections the same way they did in the print era of journalism. That doesn’t work so well in the digital era.

We realized newsrooms need a better, more efficient way to manage reader feedback in a way that expands the trust relationship with the public and improves the accuracy of the journalism content. That’s why we built the VettNews Cx tool with funding from Knight Foundation. And its why we are grateful to our dozen newsroom partners, including Poynter (you can now request a correction to any Poynter article via a button at the bottom of the page), to be using and testing this tool.

We believe this reestablishment of ethics and standards in the digital era will be a key focus for journalism in the next decade. Newsroom leaders are pointing toward transparency and willingness to correct mistakes being an important element to build trust as well.

“If we can make it easier for people to file a correction and to be in touch with us, that helps news organizations build trust,” says Lynn Walsh, a broadcast journalist and former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Corrections are coming in all of these different ways — Facebook, Twitter, etc. People don’t know how to contact newsrooms.”

The executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, said something similar on Meet the Press. What “we’re going to have to get very aggressive at is to be really transparent, to assume nothing, and to make sure people know where we are, how we do our work, to show our work more aggressively,” he said. “That’s a different muscle for us.”

Industry support

These newsroom leaders are not alone. Organizations such as Trusting News, The Trust Project and The News Literacy Project show us that journalism organizations need to work harder at building public trust about the newsgathering process.

TrustingNews’s website notes that “Most non-journalists don’t know how journalists do their job. And why should they? We historically haven’t done a great job of explaining it.” Leaders Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh note that journalists and news organizations need to go further to show their ethics and standards. (Note: At VettNews, we appreciate our partnership with Trusting News to make our Cx tool available to Trusting News member newsrooms.)

Meanwhile, The Trust Project, led by Sally Lehrman, has identified eight trust indicators designed to help newsrooms, among other things, show their commitment to fairness and accuracy by publishing corrections or clarifications as promptly as possible.

Alan Miller and the team at The News Literacy Project in Washington, D.C., are putting out resources and surveys to help the public understand how to avoid conspiracy theories and how to determine what is verifiable news and information. Other groups such as the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University and the National Association for Media Literacy in Education are providing resources to educators.

In coming posts, I plan to interview some key thought leaders about the corrections process and how we can improve that zone for standards, ethics and trust in our newsrooms. I also plan to share lessons and insights we are learning from those news outlets using the VettNews Cx tool.

My hope is to elucidate ways the news industry can more simply and effectively weed our section of the Internet garden, making ethical journalism sites the place more and more readers want to be when consuming news and information. This emerging trust industry within journalism gives us hope to help our society move away from hoaxes, disinformation and conspiracy theories. It provides a path for people to move back toward quality news and information sources, to reestablish a trust relationship with those sources.

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Paul Glader is a journalism professor at The King’s College in NYC. He’s founder of @VettNews and executive editor at ReligionUnplugged.com. He spent 10 years…
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