How can fact-checkers earn readers’ trust — and keep it?

Although journalism has always been an exercise in gaining readers’ trust, the last year has been a particularly tough one for members of the news media.

It was no surprise, then, that trust and transparency were major topics of discussion at Global Fact 4, the annual summit of fact-checkers around the world that took place July 5-7 in Madrid, Spain. While it would be easy to target the United States and its tumultuous 2016 election as the epicenter of distrust in the media, panelists at Global Fact 4 proved it is a worldwide issue.

“The sensation we have in Spain is that people don’t care about lies,” said Ana Pastor, anchor of Spain’s news program El Objetivo. “It’s very discouraging. As people who are trying to detect lies, we get the sense that we’re wasting our time, at least in the short term. Everyone says they’re interested in truth, but I’m not sure that they are.”

Pastor opened the final day of Global Fact 4 by interviewing Guillermo Solovey, a researcher in the Instituto de Cálculo at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina. Solovey and Pastor agreed that news consumers in their countries tend to reject facts that don’t align with their already-established beliefs, making it harder for readers to trust any journalists who present alternative opinions.

“How can we devise a strategy to improve the impact of fact-checking?” Solovey asked. “We have to reach the largest, widest audience possible, but we also have to reach an audience that’s willing to change. We need to get people to react.”

Among Solovey’s suggested approaches were more collaboration between journalists and academics, which is currently practiced at Australia’s fact-checking operation The Conversation; continued research on the use of social media, where consumers are particularly selective about the news they read; and more dialogue with readers in order to understand why they don’t trust fact-checking.

“Since we all live in news bubbles, we have to burst those bubbles. We have to break those barriers,” Solovey said. “We have to confirm and show people that bias does exist, and then use it in our favor.”

Fact-checkers worldwide are heeding Solovey’s advice, as evidenced by the Knight Foundation’s recent funding of 20 new projects that will address media literacy, trust in journalism and the flow of accurate information.

Among them is Facts Matter, through which PolitiFact staff members plan to directly engage with the community — especially people who identify as conservative — and determine ways in which trust can be built within those groups. (PolitiFact is a project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times.) Other notable projects include Periscopic’s ChartCheck, which will address misinformation that spreads via charts and graphs, and Indiana University’s Hoaxy Botornot, which will uncover the Internet’s attempts to use bots to misinform the public.

Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, also addressed readers’ lack of trust in fact-checking — but his ideal solution would require a fundamental change to the way fact-checks are done.

As Rosenstiel explained in a March Q&A with Poynter, consumers are often turned off by fact checks that attack the politicians they like, and many readers don’t care to be told what is wrong or right. Plus, given the typical format of a fact check — a widely circulated claim is found, then rated on its truthfulness — politicians are now able to anticipate, exploit and weaponize the work that fact-checkers do.

Rosenstiel wants that model to change. Rather than revolving around individual claims or political figures, fact-checking should be about the big issues within a community, which would put journalists’ work in a larger frame.

“Instead of a claim, the atomic unit of fact-checking becomes the understanding of an issue,” Rosenstiel said. “People dismiss fact-checking because they see it as claim by claim, not understanding the context framing each problem.”

Fact-checkers should start by identifying four or six key ideas that readers need to understand — the economy, for example — and ask questions that would lead to a holistic grasp of those topics. According to Rosenstiel, this approach goes deeper, wider and puts the journalists in a proactive role that can involve their audience.

“One of the big issues we have as fact-checkers is that people think we’re up to something that is not helpful to them,” he said. “Our whole posture toward them changes if we tell them, ‘We want to talk to you about the big issues around you.’ That can be the beginning of the fact-checking process.”

Rosenstiel also emphasized that fact checks of individual claims are still valuable in the industry and shouldn’t be abolished altogether. But when it comes to earning and keeping readers’ trust, broader context for an issue is essential.

“We idealize, for good reason, keeping people in power accountable. We see that as an end to itself,” Rosenstiel said. “Here, it would be a component of a larger end: informing citizens on key issues and keeping these guys accountable. This doesn’t exclude their other rhetoric. But instead of just being the speed cop handing out tickets on this one street, you’re trying to address crime in the whole city.”

  • Profile picture for user Rebecca Iannucci

    Rebecca Iannucci

    Rebecca Iannucci is the research and communications coordinator for the Duke Reporters’ Lab. A 2014 graduate of Elon University, she spent two years in Los Angeles as a reporter for TVLine, where she wrote and reported on the television industry.

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