Editor’s note: Joy Mayer was a 2010-2011 RJI Fellow and a former associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.
How do people decide what news is trustworthy? How can journalists influence what users consume and share on social media? And in the era of fake stories, when untruths often travel faster than the truth, what can credible journalists do to stand out?
When we began the Trusting News project in January 2016, we had no idea how the presidential campaign would evolve. We didn’t know the intentional spread of false information would play an even larger role in the information climate. We didn’t know Facebook’s algorithm would move toward favoring posts shared by individuals over those shared by pages, making it all the more important that news consumers help spread our content.
We just knew the issue of reclaiming the credibility of journalism was worthy of focused attention.
We started by identifying strategies used by other industries to build trust. We learned from people immersed in issues like patient-physician trust, nonprofit storytelling and corporate transparency. We read research on trust and accuracy from a variety of perspectives. We also talked to working journalists about where they saw the biggest gaps.
We turned what we learned into strategies we wish journalists would employ to use social media to build trust. Then, with the help of 14 news outlets, we tested those strategies and tracked how users responded. What we’ve learned can help journalists influence what the public chooses to engage with and pass along.
The biggest takeaway is that across the strategies, successful posts anticipated users’ needs, moods and motivations. They met people where they were. They demonstrated that journalists knew who they were talking to and how to best invite interaction.
The strategy results include examples of what users responded to and what fell flat. You’ll also find tips on how to write and frame posts in a way that’s likely to connect with audiences, along with worksheets for each strategy to get started in your own newsroom.
Jump straight to ideas worth stealing. Look at posts that were especially successful, and ones that fell flat. Search by newsroom partner or by size of Facebook audience. Search just for live videos, still images or link shares. Or — one of my favorites — peruse posts involving comment interactions between journalists and users.
I hope the posts inspire you to more effectively communicate your value and your relationship to the people you aim to serve. I hope they inspire you to demonstrate that users can help set your agenda and that you value what they contribute.
Here are some of my favorites:
- The Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram invited readers’ questions about old criminal cases and deployed journalists to answer them.
- KLRU in Austin, Texas, created a Facebook group to continue a dialogue started at a public event they held focused on unity and civil rights. The group hosted meaningful conversations (and even spun off into a book club).
- Newsy explored ways to explain its processes and tell its own story on topics like its all-women social media team, its coverage of Donald Trump’s financial ties to Vladimir Putin and why it used the term “American Indians” instead of “Native Americans.” A comment from Newsy on that last post got 630 likes.
- WCPO in Cincinnati took time in a post about childhood poverty to explain its commitment to the issue and its storytelling decisions.
- A Plus explored ways to inspire positive change and a spirit of shared humanity, which highlights its mission as an organization.
- Would you be brave enough (or foolish enough) to invite online conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement? The Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah, has established a relationship with its community based on a consistent back-and-forth dialogue. That gave them the credibility they needed to host respectful conversations in a video series on topics like Black Lives Matter and guns in the community. That’s Jedi-level engagement.
- The Standard-Examiner also bravely invited readers’ circulation complaints and engaged with people who replied.
- When encouraging users to share posts, successful newsrooms focused on users’ possible motivations for sharing. The Enid News & Eagle in Oklahoma inspired huge sharing numbers by directly asking users to share positive stories like this one, or stories seen as being in the public interest. And check out the more than 3,500 shares on this Fresno (California) Bee post about a food recall.
- Inviting users to tag their friends is also an effective way to expose new audiences to your content, as The Coloradoan in Ft. Collins did with a hiking story.
Overall, posts that demonstrated a desire on the part of the audience to learn more about journalism, to interact with journalists or to help share information involved factors like these:
- They were framed around what the organization could do for the user.
- They were about topics people were already inclined to interact with.
- They gave people something specific to react to.
- They read like they were written by real people.
- They invited people to be their best selves.
- They respected the organization’s existing relationship with its users.
I invite you to learn from our 14 partner newsrooms at TrustingNews.org. I also invite you to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have ideas for future work on trust.