Trustworthy media in a time of distrust: No silver bullet, but the search is on

Man Reading Newspaper by Mike Prince (CC BY 2.0)

A steady stream of surveys, reports, and barometers continues to confirm what many experience on a daily basis: public trust in news media is on a notable decline worldwide.

In fact, trust writ large is on decline, including trust in governments and other public institutions. According to a recent CIMA report, there is a strong correlation between declining trust in news media and democratic institutions. Adding to this challenge comes the threat of disinformation campaigns and faltering business models for news outlets—a near-fatal cocktail for free, independent media across the globe.

In order to counteract this trend, a number of organizations have launched efforts to restore citizen trust in news content. NGOs, private foundations, academics, and national governments, to name a few, have turned increasing attention toward preventing this rise of disinformation while supporting quality, independent journalism. According to a recent  Data & Society report, interventions typically take the form of:

  1. 1. Trust and verification mechanisms, including fact-checking, trusted coalitions, and content moderation;
  2. 2. Disrupting economic incentives, such as cutting off advertising spend for “fake news” producers;
  3. 3. De-prioritizing content and banning accounts; and
  4. 4. Regulatory approaches, notably including a recent German law taking aim at platforms.

News media and media development stakeholders, however, are also developing responses, hoping to prevent the danger of ham-fisted government regulations without placing the title of final arbiter on platforms like Facebook and Google. Audiences require greater trust in the media in order to stay informed; outlets require greater trust from their audiences in order to encourage loyal readership; and advertisers require more trusted media outlets in order to expand their own markets and brand strength. Below are just a few of several ongoing initiatives aimed at rebuilding trust, each focusing their efforts primarily on audiences, outlets, and advertisers:

The Trust Project

Based out of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Santa Barbara, The Trust Project embodies a consortium of news companies in developing transparency standards for news outlets, displayed as a “trust mark” for each qualifying outlet. Drawing from extensive audience research to determine what the public looks for in its news media, the project highlights eight key “Trust Indicators,” which range from best practices to reader feedback mechanisms. With the stamp of approval that comes with the verified trust mark, the consortium aims to educate and reassure audiences, while also boosting the content in search engines and social media platforms.

Credibility Coalition

Much like The Trust Project, this group effort, led by Meedan and Hacks/Hackers, works toward systematic credibility indicators for news media and their readers. Unlike The Trust Project, however, the Credibility Coalition focuses their attention on definitions, content analysis, and social network analysis, put to the test by a handful of trained annotators. Born out of MisinfoCon 2017, the initiative recently announced new injections of funding to continue their research, sponsoring workshops, academic reports, and a dataset of articles used in testing their initial indicators.

United for News

Internews, the World Economic Forum, and others lead a multistakeholder coalition in working to support local, independent media from the bottom up. Under the umbrella of supporting sustainability and rebuilding trust, the coalition focuses particularly on the transition to digital, content creation, and increased impact on local businesses, government, and citizens. While the work will be largely through research and pilot initiatives with independent outlets, global advertising partners like Vodafone have begun to engage with the coalition in hopes of expanding their global ad-buying to local markets to support free media in that space.

Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI)

The newest among the ranks, JTI was publicly launched in early April, spearheaded by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) alongside Agence France Presse (AFP), the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), and the Global Editors Network (GEN). Grounded in a Workshop Agreement process through the European Centre of Standardization (CEN), the initiative aims to draw from diverse stakeholders in crafting voluntary, globally applicable standards for trust and transparency in news media. The initiative will incorporate advertisers throughout the process to encourage the future application of its standards in identifying trustworthy media outlets of all sizes. A kickoff workshop will be held in Paris on May 23, and welcomes all interested participants to register here by May 18.

These are just a few of numerous initiatives in the rapidly growing space, as emphasized in a recent Nieman Lab article. The News Integrity Initiative, the LSE Truth, Trust, & Technology Commission, and myriad others join their expertise, networks, and unique focuses to the broader conversation, coordinating with each other where possible. Meanwhile, platform giants Facebook and Google remain carefully tuned in, ready to express varying degrees of support for the initiatives that hope to help them dodge the bad PR that comes with, for instance, news-crushing algorithms and high profile apologies. And in an increasingly challenging environment for both news media and informed citizens—an environment that will require more than one, silver bullet solution—all innovations toward trust and transparency are welcome at the table.

For further reading:

Kate Musgrave is the Assistant Research and Outreach Officer at the Center for International Media Assistance. Find her on Twitter at @kate_musgrave.

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