Building reader relationships

“Currently, most — if not all — news organizations struggle to figure out who their existing users are, and they aren’t even close to knowing who their potential users are.”

In 2015, I predicted that this would be the year news organizations needed to get their ethical houses in order to build trust with audiences. “It doesn’t matter how much content they post on Snapchat, Instagram, or Twitter — if users don’t trust journalists, they won’t buy what news outlets are selling.”

tracie-powellIt remains true today. But until and unless news organizations figure out how to build trusting relationships with users, nothing will change.

Currently, most — if not all — news organizations struggle to figure out who their existing users are, and they aren’t even close to knowing who their potential users are. What’s worse is that users don’t know us either, and many don’t seem to care. News organizations have been indifferent toward communities and audiences for so long that now communities and audiences are indifferent toward us.

So how do we fix this?

It’s all about relationships. Building them takes time, is expensive and is made even more difficult by the lack of trust between the American public and news organizations. Still, if anything is to change for the better in 2017, this is where we’ll have to start.

  • One-on-one. Trust will increasingly stem from one-on-one relationships between individual journalists and users. We already know that audiences are loyal to brands they find trustworthy. It’s no different with journalism. More journalists can leverage this by sharing credible, useful content, engaging regularly with users, and by being empathetic. This trend will continue through 2017 and beyond.
  • Get to know each other. For introverts, who are common in the field of journalism, opening oneself up and allowing others to get to know you — and vice versa — isn’t easy. But this simply must happen in order to develop trust and relationships with our audiences. We can do this by talking and listening to them (actually walking a beat and immersing ourselves in the communities we cover). Interacting with existing audiences through comments, believe it or not, is also a great way to get to know our readers. There are digital tools we can use to accomplish some of this — Jennifer Brandel’s Hearken and the Coral Project among them. The Washington Post developed pricey proprietary software to shorten the length of time it actually takes to get to know audiences better. I wrote about it (here) for the John S. Knight Fellowship Program at Stanford. There are also other techniques news organizations can try to better understand their existing audience, or to develop new audiences.
  • Tell more complete, and inclusive, stories. There’s been a lot said, and written, about fake news, including developing tech tools to identify fake news for our users. The thing is, even if we take the time to do this, who’s to say that these tools will deepen trust with journalism? They won’t. There’s the question about “who decides,” and then there’s the fact that these tools won’t fix the larger issue: News organizations often produce stories that ignore, or leave out, diversity of perspectives. And even though the story may be factually correct, it still isn’t accurate because it doesn’t include other viewpoints that might render the information presented closer to the truth. Case in point, journalists’ continued use of “working class” to describe white voters in Middle America who supported Trump. This group may be a subset of the working class, but it leaves out millions of Americans who aren’t white, but who are every bit as much part of America’s working class. Every report we produce on working-class Americans that fails to include these people, is in fact, inaccurate and likely dismissed as “fake news” by those who’ve been left out of our reporting. Another example that I recently saw involves Lebron James, who with a few of his teammates decided not to stay at a Trump hotel. News reports implied it was because James supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But nowhere was James asked his reasons. Had a reporter asked, one would have easily learned that the players’ decision had nothing to do with Clinton, and everything to do with strains of racism and intolerance currently associated with the Trump brand. Though factually correct, the story comes off as fake to some because journalists failed to tell a full and complete story.
  • Avoid making false equivalences. In pursuing some kind of “objective balance,” journalists often inadvertently introduce bias into their reporting. Take, for example, a report last week by The New York Times headlined: “On Campus, Trump Fans Say They Need ‘Safe Spaces.'” In the report, writer Anemona Hartocollis attributes bias to both Clinton and Trump supporters on college campuses. In describing how Trump supporters feel their views are disrespected, Hartocollis writes that Clinton supporters often call Trump supporters racist. She then writes that Trump supporters on one campus flicked matches and threatened to set a woman on fire because she wore a hijab. One is a crime, the other is an exercise in free speech. Common sense would dictate that the latter action is not equal to the former, but that didn’t stop the Times from presenting it that way. Presenting this kind of false equivalence hurts journalists’ credibility, and further erodes trust with readers. Not to mention in plays directly into the hands of those perpetuating the kind of bias and division that is in direct opposition to our code of ethics.
  • Shoot straight, stop perpetuating division. Race is one of those subjects that many Americans choose not to talk about in mixed company. The problem is journalists often hurt ourselves when we refuse to speak truth to power. One example is our continued attempt to normalize what isn’t normal, including the way race and racism was exploited during this election. To paint Richard Spencer’s alt-right as a kinder, gentler, prettier brand of racism is wrong, not normal. Yet that’s exactly what some publications, including Mother Jones, has done even if the intent was not there. Further, our refusal to report about the many ways president-elect Donald Trump continuously set up “us versus them” scenarios only served to produce coverage that was sensational and lacking in depth. The reports certainly did not capture the complexity nor impact that Trump’s actions had on underrepresented groups in this country. The news media, despite the calling in our codes of ethics, did not give voice to the voiceless. Instead, we continued to serve as a megaphone for the powerful. Had we focused more on substantial issues, rather than Trump’s latest tweets, perhaps voters would have seen that they had more in common with one another than differences. Perhaps our reporting would have served to connect people and to bring communities together, instead of further dividing them.
  • I am not going to go into hiring people so that newsrooms can better reflect the communities we serve. It’s well established that users seeing themselves in our coverage — and on mastheads — goes a long way in establishing trust. We’re at the point now that either news organizations will do it, or they won’t. Those that don’t won’t be successful, because you can’t grow audience in 2017 without being inclusive. I will say this, however: If you can’t hire more diverse staff, then find ways to partner with trustworthy ethnic media publications. Their audiences are fiercely loyal, and users trust them.

Happy New Year! Here’s to healthy relationship building in 2017.

Tracie Powell is founder of AllDigitocracy and a senior fellow with the Democracy Fund.

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