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6 ways to increase the public’s trust in journalism

August 15, 2018 | By Lisa Heyamoto, Senior Instructor—University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication @lisaheyamoto and
Todd Milbourn, Instructor—University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication @toddmilbourn

By now it has become common knowledge: Most Americans simply don’t trust the news media. It’s a sentiment that journalists have become all too familiar with over the past two years, as we strive to produce fair, accurate and relevant content in a climate in which we’re often branded as bad actors.

But what if producing fair, accurate and relevant content isn’t enough?

As it turns out, many members of the public want a deeper, more reciprocal relationship with the news organizations they turn to for information. Essentially, they want a relationship that more closely mirrors the other trusted relationships in their lives.

That’s a key finding from The 32 Percent Project — a year-long research initiative to discover how citizens define trust and how journalists can better earn it. Two principles guided the project: that trust is something to earn rather than something to receive, and that the best way to learn what people want is to ask them. We held a series of conversations about trust in the news media in diverse communities across the country. And though the discussions varied widely, the results were remarkably consistent.

What follows are the six “conditions of trust” that citizens themselves say must be present before they will trust a news organization. The full report, published by the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications, elaborates on these conditions while outlining strategies to help bridge the trust gap.

1. Authenticity

Participants said they tend to trust people in their personal lives who don’t rush to judgment and are comfortable saying what they don’t know. They want to see the same characteristics in news organizations.

However, this meant different things to different people. One example comes from a man in Mississippi who said he often approaches his pastors when wrestling with questions about his faith. But instead of presenting him with a perfectly crafted answer, they give him tools to search for answers on his own. He said he appreciated that they had the humility to share the limitations of their knowledge.

Many news organizations strive to showcase the authority of their journalism. Yet, time and again participants said it’s more important to be authentic in how and what information is delivered.

2. Transparency

Workshop participants said in clear terms that they do not understand the journalistic process. Many had almost no knowledge of how journalists gather information, what choices they make, and whether they’re presenting facts that have been obtained independently or have been reinterpreted or aggregated.

Participants said they wanted a deeper sense of how journalism works — and how it’s held accountable — before they’re willing to trust what they see. When it comes to trust-building, explaining the process seems to be as important as the product.

3. Consistency

Participants reported that the most trusted people, organizations and institutions in their lives had a history of consistently and predictably following through on a clear promise.

Participants expressed this idea in different ways depending on their lived experience. One college student in Mississippi cited Domino’s Pizza as an example. He said drivers always met or beat their 30-minute delivery deadline. Thus, he felt that news organizations should be similarly concerned with setting clear, mutually-understood expectations.

4. Positivity

When it comes to personal relationships, participants said they tend to trust people in their lives who are generally positive — and they applied the same logic to news organizations. Many pointed out that consistently negative coverage erodes their trust because it doesn’t accurately capture the baseline of positivity they experience in everyday life.

For example, a participant in Illinois described what he called the “two sides of trust.” The affirmative side creates a bedrock of support, while the critical side enables constructive feedback. You can’t have one without the other, he said.

5. Diversity

Across all workshops, participants said they did not see themselves reflected in the news they consume. That feeling cut across racial, gender, economic and geographic lines, and participants felt it was because the journalists themselves did not reflect a wide variety of experiences.

Across all workshops, participants said they did not see themselves reflected in the news they consume. That feeling cut across racial, gender, economic and geographic lines, and participants felt it was because the journalists themselves did not reflect a wide variety of experiences.

“(We see) a lot of the same types of stories based on who the producers are,” said a participant in Boston. “It’s not like there’s (always) a room full of 40 people saying, ‘What should we work on today?’ There may be just a few.”

With only a subset of stories being told, participants said they felt news organizations were only serving a small part of the community. Ignoring everyone else underscored perceptions that the news simply wasn’t for them. Diversity, they said, is an essential ingredient for any news organization seeking to build trust.

6. Shared mission

Creating a sense that a news organization shares bedrock values and is invested in the good of the community was critical to building trust. In many cases, participants viewed today’s news organizations as little more than profit-seekers pursuing sensational or misguided stories as a way to drive advertising.

Participants were asked to design a news organization from scratch that was maximized for trust, and nearly every group said it would spend time, money and energy on building deep, genuine relationships with their audience. Stronger relationships, they felt, would lead to better journalism and deeper trust.

“Journalism is a relationship,” said a young man in California. “It’s not a product.”

About the authors

Lisa Heyamoto is a narrative journalist and journalism educator whose research, teaching and creative work focuses on community-building through storytelling. Before joining the SOJC faculty, she was a columnist and reporter at The Sacramento Bee and The Seattle Times, where she wrote about culture, lifestyle and trends.

Heyamoto is co-founder of The 32 Percent Project, which explores what drives and disrupts public trust in the news media. She holds a masters degree in literary nonfiction journalism and a bachelors degree in journalism and English.

Todd Milbourn is an investigative reporter, journalism instructor and co-director of the SOJC’s journalism master’s program. As an Agora Faculty Innovation Fellow for 2017-18, Milbourn co-founded The 32 Percent Project, a national community engagement project exploring what drives and disrupts trust in the news media.

Before joining the SOJC, Milbourn worked as a newspaper reporter for The Sacramento Bee and The Modesto Bee, where he produced a string of award-winning investigations. He’s also worked as a magazine editor in Prague and as a broadcast journalist for the CBS affiliate in Eugene.

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