How to Restore Trust in News

How to Restore Trust in News



To Restore Trust in News, We Need Less Click Bait, More Accountability

This is an evolving discussion in response to hopeful signs from people in the news industry who are committed to seriously trustworthy journalism.

My personal bias is simply that I'm a news consumer, and just want news I can trust. I feel that trust might be the primary challenge in news today, à la "trust is the new black." Major challenges include finding successful business models for news, but I defer that to the news professionals.

There are a lot of good people under considerable pressure to write stories that people will actually read. However, that pressure inflates questionable behavior, which even a guy like me can see.

That is, most journalists and editors really want to print what's really true, but there is sometimes intense stress to cut corners, like the acceptance of conventional wisdom, or even to cite sources that haven't been vetted. Their boss might only care that a story is plausible.

It's hard to trust the news overall when many major stories are ignored by news outlets.
For example, there's now considerable evidence that financial instability was a big problem well before the economic troubles of 2008, well documented by Dean Starkman at the Columbia Journalism Review.

There's the highly reported fake IRS scandal, as opposed to a much more serious, underreported scandal, well reported in rare publications including ProPublica.

Emerging: Sunlight Foundation has documented a deeply serious threat to the American people — the degree of influence buying in Washington:

After examining 14 million records, including data on campaign contributions, lobbying expenditures, federal budget allocations and spending, we found that, on average, for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government. The $4.4 trillion total represents two-thirds of the $6.5 trillion that individual taxpayers paid into the federal treasury.

It's hard to trust the news when some of the press is kind of complicit in deceiving the public.

Reporters are smart, and they often know when a public figure (particularly a politician) is lying, or might be. In the latter case, due diligence might require as little as a quick Google search. However, a sensational lie might sell advertising, so a news org might repeat the lie, with no fact-checking, doing actual damage to people's lives. For example, there was the whole "death panel" thing, which might have compromised public health and people's lives.

While Jon Stewart calls this "CNN leaves it there," the problem is far more pervasive. Jay Rosen explores the issue in depth.

It's hard to trust the news when the press does so little fact-checking. danah boyd expresses her frustration regarding (another) fake study, which indirectly does great harm to people:

Why why why do journalists feel the need to spread these kinds of messages even once they know that there’s no evidence to support those claims? Is it the pressure of 24/7 news? Is it a Milgram-esque hierarchy where producers/editors push for messages and journalists/staffers conform even though they know better because they simply can’t afford to question their superiors given the state of journalism?

I’d get it if journalists really stood by their interpretations even though I disagreed with them. I can even stomach salacious headlines that are derived from the story. And as much as I hate fear-mongering in general, I can understand how it emerges from certain stories. But since when did the practice of journalism allow for uncritically making shit up? ::shaking head:: Where’s the fine line between poor journalism and fabrication?

It's hard to trust the news when there's little or no accountability in news outlets; note that these are ongoing problems which threaten U.S. democracy.

That's why I say that "a trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy" and when the press fails in that regards, well, we get the situation in Washington like we have today.

Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post says it way better than I ever could:

Newspapers don’t tell the truth under many different, and occasionally innocent, scenarios. Mostly when they don’t know the truth. Or when they quote someone who does not know the truth.

And more and more, when they quote someone who is spinning the truth, shaping it to some preconceived version of a story that is supposed to be somehow better than the truth, omitting details that could be embarrassing.

And finally, when they quote someone who is flat-out lying. There is a lot of spinning and a lot of lying in our times — in politics, in government, in sports and everywhere. It’s gotten to a point where, if you are like me, you no longer believe the first version of anything. It wasn’t always that way.

There are journalists of good will who want to restore trustworthy behavior to the press profession.

Both the Society of Professional Journalists and the Online News Assocation have impressively updated their ethics codes. I'd note that "ethics code" is pretty much "guidelines" for trustworthy behavior. However, few reporters or publishers seem to have heard of this.

The Trust Project, part of the Markkula Center for Practical Ethics at Santa Clara University, is making a really serious, very impressive start in these regards.

Jeff Jarvis summarizes their take, and builds on it impressively:

In their Trust Project, Richard Gingras, head of Google News, and Sally Lehrman, a fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, argue the need to rebuild trust in news and they propose a set of practical tactics. I want to suggest further steps to support their campaign.

The reforms Gingras and Lehrman propose:

  • News organizations and journalists should craft and publish statements of mission and ethics.
  • Journalists should disclose their background to reveal both levels of expertise and areas of personal interest and conflict.
  • For disclosure and accountability (and credit, I’d add), news organizations should reveal all the hands that work on content: researchers, editors, 'even lawyers.'
  • News organizations should aspire to an academic ethic of citations (links=footnotes) and corrections. They would also be wise to disclose their methodology — i.e., whom they interviewed, what they researched.

I see more opportunities in building systems and companies around:

  • gathering and analyzing signals of authority;
  • building relationship data and analysis for media companies to increase their relevance;
  • membership structures for media organizations to give clients — the public — greater voice in the use of journalistic resources;
  • establishing new metrics for news as a service (did we improve your life and your community?), enhancing accountability;
  • creating the means for trusted, recipient-controlled communication that is free of trolls and other online plagues (as opposed to email, Twitter, et al, which are sender-controlled);
  • advertising and revenue models that value quality over volume;
  • new forms of TV news that do not rely on cheap tricks to fill time and build volume but instead get rewarded for delivering value; and on and on. Technology companies — not just Google — and investors, media companies, universities, and foundations can invest in and support such innovation to build trust.

I'd add that news orgs need to provide, as part of their ethics code, some means by which they can be held accountable for when something goes wrong.

That is, when inaccurate news is posted, it should be corrected as soon as possible, in a way that doesn't reinforce misinformation. If necessary, the originating news org should work with other news orgs that might be propagating the misinformation. Challenging, but … "do no harm."

They should also label opinion pieces as such, and avoid deceptive click bait. (I'm taking the position that click bait isn't wrong in itself; if honest, maybe that's OK.) That is, the title or headline for a particular article should accurately reflect what's in the article.

Note that re/code does a really good job regarding ethics tags, like for Kara Swisher.

Jay Rosen presents summarizes a lot of this, from a news professional view, impressively succinctly in "How to be literate in what’s changing journalism":

  1. Transparency and trust. As “trust us, we’re professionals” gives way to “show your work.”
  2. Fact-checking and rumor control. The press used to deal with false information simply by not letting it through the gate. Now there’s an affirmative duty to track and call out false stories.

Beyond ranking trustworthy news links more highly, Google has recently introduced a means by which I'd sure like to pay for trustworthy news. Perhaps it should clearly note which news orgs have committed to trustworthy behavior.

Mathew Ingram summarizes Google Contributor:

Google Contributor, which is designed to allow web users to pay sites that they visit a monthly fee, and in return see no Google ads when they visit those sites.

Could Google Contributor become a realistic alternative to a paywall for large news sites or even individual content creators? That remains to be seen, but Google deserves some credit for continuing to experiment with different forms of monetization.

I'm with Mathew here; in its current form, Contributor is mostly a promise, but it could offer rewards for those news orgs who signal and follow through with trustworthy behavior.

OK, I'm an optimist, looking for reasons to hope to find news I can trust.

Emily Bell gets to the point regarding the tech industry and news:

Accountability is not part of Silicon Valley’s culture. But surely as news moves beyond paper and publisher, it must become so. For a decade or more, news organisations have been obeisant to the power of corporate technology, nodding and genuflecting at the latest improbably impressive magic. But their editorial processes have something to offer technologists too.

I feel tech and new orgs need to be accountable to the public. This is the best I can find, so far.

Looking for more — what would you suggest?


One Comment

Mary Fitzgerald

There are definitely practitioners who cut corners and are not ethical in the provision of news story writing – that accuracy and research are not always dominate concepts in what is published. However, thinking about the big picture, it is worth considering that in this age of post modernism we have moved from a society of expertise to a society of opinion where every one's point of view is considered valid. With post modernism comes a movement from "truth" to "Truthiness". Truthiness is the idea that what feels right is right – we no longer rely so much on logical evidence as a society. If something feels right to the individual that is the truth. Take Wikipedia as an example has replaced our use extensively of encyclopaedias. We used to refer to encyclopaedias because we had faith in the experts who had contributed to the content. However now we refer to Wikipedia where everyone, despite any expertise, has the opportunity to voice their opinion – a provision of knowledge with out authority. News provision still does rely very much on expertise and knowledge and research but the industry is in a battle with societal change where we have moved away from wanting to rely on expertise and the ideals of what truth really is.

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