Guidance for Building Trust with the Communities You Serve

By: Muskan Bansal | 04/18/2024

Trust in the media has fallen globally. 

Today on average, according to Reuters Institute’s 2023 Digital News Report, just four in 10 people say they trust news most of the time. Amid this decline, people are also more likely to avoid consuming news coverage.

One way journalists and news organizations can strengthen audience trust is to focus on reaching people who may not actively read or watch the news, suggested Lynn Walsh, assistant director at Trusting News, during an ICFJ Empowering the Truth Global Summit session. To do so effectively, it's important for journalists to “think like a news consumer,” she said.

Walsh shared tips for journalists to build trust in the communities they serve. Here’s what she had to say: 

 


 

Explain your process 

Increasing transparency by providing details about the reporting process can help journalists build trust with their audience, said Walsh: “When we talk about transparency, we’re trying to explain to people how we do our jobs [and] sometimes defending our work.” 

One strategy journalists can employ is to include “explain your process” boxes in their articles. These can be used to describe why and how a story was covered. Audiences found news articles with this feature significantly more reliable, according to a study by the Center for Media Engagement.

These boxes can also be used to highlight whether elements of a story have been generated by AI, and how much the reporter has humanly contributed to the story. “If people thought something was a real photo taken by a photographer [and] turns out it wasn't, that can make people angry, feel deceived, and not trust you or your content,” said Walsh.

This process can be adapted for broadcast and radio stories as well, by including “trust language” for the hosts to read out. These can include explanations and details about why a specific story was pursued, what reporting approach was taken for it, and more.

“We worked with a TV station in Ohio and took five stories that had already aired and broadcast, and added trust language,” said Walsh. Results from focus groups that her team ran indicated that, compared to reporting without these elements, people preferred stories that had trust language included, finding them more personal and reliable. 

Newsrooms can also include transparency language in collapsible explainer or “pop-up” boxes. This is especially useful if an article has more technical or jargony language. In these cases, readers can click on the word or phrase in question to view an explanation of the term and the context in which it was used. 

For example, in a story about real estate, readers may not necessarily understand what “zoning” means. In an article about voting, people may not understand how “mail-in ballots” work. Concepts like these can be explained directly in the piece through these pop-up boxes.

In employing these tactics, journalists and newsrooms can teach readers “how to navigate the news,” said Walsh.

 

Engage directly with consumers 

Actively interacting with the community is another effective way for journalists to maintain trust. Walsh suggested using a “customer service approach” to do so, for instance by collecting feedback, responding to comments on social media, or holding regular virtual meetings with loyal news consumers. 

One especially effective engagement approach is to interview community members about their concerns – as customers, not sources, said Walsh.

To help, Trusting News developed a community member interview guide, which advises journalists on how to identify whom to speak with, what questions to ask, and how to follow up. A useful question could be: “Do you see concerns and issues from your own life reflected in the news?” Another could be, “what do journalists often get wrong about you or about things in your life?”

“We found that when these conversations happened, people said they were more likely to trust this journalist and the newsroom, and are more likely to subscribe [to the outlet],” said Walsh. 

 

Fill the information void

An absence of reliable news in many local communities has created “information voids.” These voids are ripe to be filled with inaccurate and misleading information. 

“When people do not know something about a topic or a question, and they cannot find information, they will fill it with what they can find, whether it's conversations from friends, or something found when they googled it or something on social [media],” said Walsh. 

To address this, journalists and newsrooms can offer community members the ability to submit topics they’re curious or uninformed about. Based on these submissions, newsrooms can report stories that will be of interest and importance to their communities. Politifact, for example, has created a feedback mechanism through which people can submit information they need fact-checked, or questions they may have about events.

Filling an information void is delicate work. Sometimes, responding to false information and carrying out fact-checks may amplify the content, instead of reduce its spread. First Draft’s “Tipping Point” criteria is one way to check if a story or event fueled by mis- or disinformation should be fact-checked.

Regularly gathering feedback on stories, such as by including a quick survey at the end of an article, can help identify what kind of information is needed to fill the information void. This is most effective when journalists define the goal of the story they’re publishing. If the purpose is to debunk false information, for instance, then directly asking if the story fulfilled the purpose can help improve future fact-checking efforts.

“When you listen, it can help build trust. Mistrust is often about assumptions people make about how we do our jobs. Those assumptions are often negative,” said Walsh. “The goal here is: how can you provide information to people before they make that negative assumption?”

 

Photo by Savvas Stavrinos.

Disarming Disinformation is run by ICFJ with lead funding from the Scripps Howard Foundation, an affiliated organization with the Scripps Howard Fund, which supports The E.W. Scripps Company’s charitable efforts. The three-year project will empower journalists and journalism students to fight disinformation in the news media.

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