June 5, 2017

You think your media job is tough? Here’s Molly de Aguiar’s new gig: Help repair the public’s trust in the news business, which sunk all-time low last year — before pundits failed to predict the election of Donald Trump.

Fortunately, she’s got a lot of help — and a big pile of money — to get it done. On May 25, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism announced that De Aguiar would be the managing director of the News Integrity Initiative, a $14 million project that aims to cultivate informed citizens who trust the news.

The initiative, which was funded in part by Facebook, Mozilla and Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark, will also be steered by a three-person executive committee comprised of Áine Kerr, manager of journalism partnerships at Facebook, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Jeff Jarvis, the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY.

So, where exactly is De Aguiar planning to spend all that money? She doesn’t know yet.

“Obviously, you can enter into the news integrity and trust world in a million ways,” she said. “There’s so many different ways that we could tackle this, and there’s so much good work yet to be seeded and reported. So we have to figure that out.”

She and her colleagues have a long road ahead. Fake news, filter bubbles and partisanship have all contributed to mistrust between journalists in the public, and those problems have long resisted easy solutions. But De Aguiar isn’t a newcomer to this field. In her work with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, she helped build the New Jersey-based foundation into a nationally innovator in funding local journalism. Below is a lightly edited conversation with De Aguiar about her work with the News Integrity Initiative and how she and her colleagues plan to begin tackling the trust problem.

How will you decide which projects get funded?

I don’t have a good answer for you yet. One of the priorities for me when I start this is to build out with Jeff (Jarvis) and others a strategic framework to figure out where we think this money can be most effective.

The initial announcement for the News Integrity Initiative listed several organizations, including the Trust Project and Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales, as among the organizations that would receive funding. Counting their separate projects, is all the funding spoken for?

No. Jeff has announced a couple of the grants on his blog, including WikiTribune. He’s making a few decisions on his own before I get there, which is fine. And I think they have a general sense of who their founding partners are. But in general, I think the bulk of the money is still yet to be defined.

What outcomes are you hoping for?

I think that’s really hard to answer right now. One of the reasons why that’s particularly hard to answer is, it depends on what scale you’re talking about. I’ll give you an example: Working here in New Jersey with very small, hyperlocal sites, I have been attending some town hall forums for the News Voices: New Jersey project, which brings together newsrooms and community members to try to build relationships.

Without exception, at every single one of these town hall forums I’ve been to — I think I’ve been to five or six of them — people are really angry at the media. It’s fairly clear that they have lumped all media together. They’re talking about national broadcast TV, they’re talking about the Star-Ledger, they’re talking about a lot of different media sources.

So that part makes it tricky to have nuanced conversations in a community. But what I would say is, if we were to pursue a strategy where we’re trying to rebuild trust in journalism at a local level — if I could come back in a couple of years and go to community forums like that and hear a different sentiment, then that would be an indicator that we’re doing something right. But we may not be doing work at that scale.

The initiative will be asking different questions about effectiveness depending on what scale it’s working at. I find that I personally often go back to a very simple terms: We need to lay out exactly what it is we’re trying to accomplish, and then we need to ask ourselves: How will we know how we’re accomplishing that?

There are some very big problems facing trust in journalism — I’m thinking about the market forces that power the rise of filter bubbles on social media and the partisan outrage on cable TV. Is $14 million enough to fix that?

We have to be clear about what’s reasonable to accomplish with any given amount of money, whether it’s $14 million or $50 million. You’re not going to solve all of the trust problems that exist around the world. We have to make smart choices about what’s reasonable to accomplish with $14 million or more over the course of four years, or more.

And that is the defining question of this framework that we have to build out. What do we think we can accomplish with respect to all the things you just mentioned? Understanding that broadcast television news is a huge driver of the issues that are being created, and those market forces are something that $14 million can’t begin to compete with. There’s also long-term, systemic exclusion of whole swaths of our community. People who don’t feel like the news has ever covered what they care about or has ever shown.

There’s this pervasive lack of trust at a local level, too. There’s a lot we’re not going to be able to solve. There are certainly lots of other partners out there who are working on all these issues too, it’s not like we’re the only ones. We have to stitch together a team of superheroes to work on these issues and try to tackle them from many different ways. And we have to figure out where we feel like we can have some real impact.

Everybody talks about loss of trust as a big problem, because it is, but I don’t think there’s as much discussion about the effects that the loss of trust has had. Could you talk a little bit about some of the side effects of that hit to trustworthiness?

It’s a big question about trust in our institutions. When you have a country that is in a lot of turmoil, the outcome of the election I think showed a real stark portrait of peoples’ lack of trust in our institutions, particularly in our elected officials. And I think that’s only gotten worse post-election. That’s a scary place for us to be — all of us. If you are an Average Joe in your community, and you no longer have faith in your elected officials, it paralyzes your ability to function and participate in your community.

If we don’t have this trust in our institutions anymore, we don’t have a capacity to have trust and empathy in our neighbors. It creates a lot of fear and hate and violence toward each other. It’s a big issue. This is about democracy. What we’re trying to do at the heart of this is helping people regain a sense of agency and an ability to participate in our communities in powerful and constructive ways.

Jeff and I both see journalism as a service. It helps improve people’s lives. It helps improve our communities. And when there is a lack of trust in journalism, then journalism is unable to improve people’s lives and unable to improve our communities. And that’s sad and scary. And so we have to try to figure out how we might be able to address those issues.

Do you think the platforms are bought into this effort? Do you think Facebook, for example, is willing to do its part?

Yeah, absolutely. I think Facebook’s clearly showing a willingness to be a good partner. They believe in this work. They have shown up for it. You’re starting to see some tools that they are rolling out to try to address these issues. I have full confidence in our partners at Facebook that they care about high-quality, reliable journalism and its role in a healthy democracy.

If I felt like the platforms weren’t invested in the work, I wouldn’t be doing this. If I felt like they were at odds with what we were trying to accomplish, then I wouldn’t have come on board. And I understand that it’s complicated. I do. And I think even Jeff, in his initial announcement said something to the effect of, “Did I sell out to Facebook? Only time will tell on that front.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted De Aguiar. She said “$50 million,” not “$15 million”

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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…
Benjamin Mullin

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