Can trust in the news be repaired? Facebook, Craig Newmark, Mozilla and others are spending $14 million to try

A global coalition of tech leaders, academic institutions, nonprofits and funders, including Facebook, Mozilla and Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark, on Monday announced a $14 million initiative to combat declining trust in the news media and advance news literacy.

The News Integrity Initiative, which will be administered by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, will unite an initial group of 19 organizations and individuals around the world to make journalism more informative and help news consumers understand it better.

Notable among the list of funders is Facebook, the social network where much of the world's news consumption occurs. Facebook recently launched a journalism initiative that included an outreach campaign to newsrooms across the U.S., and its participation in this project marks its latest contribution to the news industry since a tide of fraudulent stories inundated its platform during the run-up to the 2016 election.

With additional funding from the Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, the Knight Foundation, the Tow Foundation, AppNexus and Betaworks, the News Integrity Initiative will conduct research, plan events and undertake projects that help people make informed decisions about what they read and share online.

The new project has a tough road ahead. The rise of filter bubbles, the metastasis of hyperpartisan news and other factors have caused trust in the media to sink to an all-time low. President Trump's repeated condemnation of the press and the national media's failure to correctly forecast the winner of the 2016 presidential election has likely not done much to heal the rift between news consumers and the media in recent months.

In the past, much of the discussions around news literacy have been focused entirely on improving the consumer's understanding of the media, said Jeff Jarvis, the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, which is overseeing the grant. In part, this project aims to focus the attention on changes that news organizations and platforms could make to improve the ways they inform their users.

"I think we in journalism can do a lot to teach the platforms about journalism and public responsibility," Jarvis said. "I think they can do a lot to teach us about resetting our relationship with the public we serve and how we can better inform the public conversation together. Because that conversation isn't happening solely on our site anymore. It's happening obviously all across the net."

The announcement included an initial list of 19 organizations and individuals that will work on the project. They are:

  • Arizona State University in the U.S.
  • Center for Community and Ethnic Media at CUNY Journalism School in the U.S.
  • Constructive Institute at Aarhus University in Denmark
  • Edelman based in the U.S.
  • European Journalism Centre in the Netherlands
  • Fundación Gabriel García Márquez para el Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano (FNPI) based in Colombia
  • Hamburg Media School in Germany
  • Hans-Bredow-Institut in Germany
  • The Ida B. Wells Society in the U.S.
  • International Center for Journalists based in the U.S.
  • News Literacy Project based in the U.S.
  • Polis, London School of Economics in the U.K.
  • Ecole de Journalisme de Sciences Po (Sciences Po Journalism School) in France
  • The Society of Publishers in Asia based in Hong Kong
  • Trust Project based in the U.S.
  • Walkley Foundation in Australia
  • Weber Shandwick based in the U.S.
  • Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Division for Freedom of Expression and Media Development headquartered in France

The idea for the News Integrity Initiative blossomed after initial conversations with Newmark, Jarvis said. (Newmark's foundation recently gave Poynter $1 million to create its first ethics chair). Facebook got in touch soon after, and other funders began expressing interest.

“In high school U.S. history, I learned that a trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy,” Newmark said in a statement. "As a news consumer, like most folks, I want news we can trust. That means standing up for trustworthy news media and learning how to spot clickbait and deceptive news."

Campbell Brown, the recently appointed head of news partnerships for Facebook, said in a statement the News Integrity initiative is intended to "give people the tools necessary to be discerning about the information they see online."

"Improving news literacy is a global concern, and this diverse group assembled by CUNY brings together experts from around the world to work toward building more informed communities," Brown said.

Jarvis expressed interest in a few ideas aimed at improving trust in the news during a recent interview with Poynter. A comprehensive review of the available research in this field is key, he said. He suggested there might be a way for news organizations and platforms like Facebook to include signals that would indicate a news source is trustworthy — the length of time the publisher has been in existence, for example, or more prominent branding and context for stories displayed on social media.

Ultimately, the work of increasing the trustworthiness of news is a two-way street, Jarvis said. It can't be done without buy-in from publishers and the platforms that distribute their work.

"It's up to us to help them define quality," Jarvis said. "That doesn't mean it eliminates the speech that now can occur. I'm in favor of free speech. It does, however, say that we can help them with more quality information."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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