Journalists: Defend your work through action, not just with editorials

With Lynn Walsh. Originally published on Medium

At Trusting News, we’re eager to see more than 350 editorials planned for today as part of an effort started by The Boston Globe to fight back against Trump’s “dirty war against the free press.”

It’s important for journalists to tell audiences why news outlets deserve First Amendment freedoms, why President Donald Trump’s attacks on their profession are unfair and dangerous and what important role journalism plays in democracy.

We also, though, sincerely hope the participating news organizations are doing more to earn their communities’ respect than writing one editorial. (Here are excerpts from some of them, via Poynter.)

We all know trust builds over time. That also applies in the relationship between journalists and their communities. Trust in a news organization develops when people know they can turn to you consistently for reliable information. It happens when people feel they are being heard. It happens when they see their own lives and priorities reflected in your news coverage. It happens when they have confidence in the decisions, values and ethics taking place in your newsrooms.

But if you do not tell them about the editorial decisions you are making on a daily basis or listen and respond to their feedback (even the critical comments), how do they know they are being heard or that you are thinking critically about your news coverage?

At the Trusting News project we are learning that one key area of disconnect between the public and journalists is that news consumers often don’t realize what journalism encompasses. When they hear the word “journalism,” they’re likely not thinking it is the story that informed them of how many new teachers their child’s school is hiring or what the city’s plans are for the beach that’s eroding or what new businesses are opening at the mall. And partly because we do not consistently tell them how we do are jobs, they assume the worst about our motivations, ethics and commitment to accuracy.

They assume we quote people without fact-checking what they tell us. They assume we pay people to speak about certain topics. They assume we publish all information without considering the effect it could have on people.

And why wouldn’t they? In a lot of cases we have not told them any differently. There is an information void about how journalism operates, and we’re not filling it. Also, consider that many people in your community may not know a journalist or have ever even met one.

The good news: Journalists could be taking really simple steps to work on this problem. The Trusting News project is working to empower journalists to more effectively tell the story of their work. We want you explain what you do — your ethics and your process. We want journalists and news organizations to anticipate criticisms and address them proactively. We want you to engage when the audience has questions. We think this should be a priority every day because your relationship with your community could depend on it.

How can you do this? Here are some examples and lessons from Trusting News partners of how to demonstrably earn trust day-to-day, on specific issues.

  • From the Fort Collins Coloradoan: Share a thread of favorite stories, as a way to demonstrate the scope and value of your journalism. This could be done once a week.
  • From WCPO: Anticipate criticism of a story and be proactive about sharing your motivation and process.
  • From the Jefferson City News Tribune: Don’t hope your readers recognize your balanced approach to covering a complex issue. Point it out clearly.
  • From WUSA: Explain your process. What questions did you set out to answer with your reporting?
  • From the Virginian-Pilot: Remember you can’t explain things too many times.
  • From the Fort Collins Coloradoan: Your journalism has value. Go ahead and explain why you have a paywall (and in this case, watch the subscriptions roll in).
  • From several partners: Invite your community’s questions about how you operate. Do it live on Facebook (using Facebook Live or a comment thread), and stick around to answer them.
  • From KCRG: Your audience likely doesn’t understand where all your content comes from or what your relationship is to your owners. Explain it.
  • From WITF: Explain the relationship between funding and news coverage.
  • From several partners: In any way that works for you, regularly ask for feedback, then respond to it. (A Google form, like this one from The Cedar Rapids Gazette, makes that really easy and allows for anonymity.)

Most of these efforts didn’t take significant time. None took any special technology. Mostly, they required a desire to be transparent, a willingness to engage and a realization that earning trust is the job of journalists.

To be successful you have to understand what your community needs from you and listen to the concerns they have about your work. Don’t blow off the critical comments. Breath deeply as you read them, look for patterns, then address them.

Invest in listening, then be willing to adjust your work based on what you hear.

As Al Tompkins wrote for Poynter this week:

Lots of journalists were surprised after the 2016 election. We vowed to listen to the public more, to find out why we were so surprised to hear that the public didn’t love journalists and a growing number didn’t believe us.

Before you publish your editorials extolling the virtues of journalism, ask yourself: How are you doing with that listening tour? How have you changed because of what you learned? How willing are you to be changed by discourse?

Whatever you write in your editorials, are you willing to listen, too?

So publish those editorials today. Share them with your friends. Be a cheerleader for journalism. But make sure the idea is backed up in action. Remember, no one else is going to solve this problem of distrust for us. Take the time to listen well, demonstrate your credibility and actively earn trust.


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