For months now, I have been telling my students at the University of Southern California that one of their first duties as journalists will be to restore trust with audiences. Americans’ trust in the news media has dropped to a new low, and many of the other principles we teach journalism students will be less effective if they don’t have the basic attention and faith of the public. That focus has taken on new urgency in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, and I’ve been thinking more about concrete steps current and future journalists can take to repair the damaged relationship.
So let’s make 2017 the year of transparency. Show your work by explaining more of the reporting process to your audience. Be authentic by being more honest about what you know and what you don’t. It’s a small part of all things we can do, but it’s something we can do now — and frankly should have been doing all along.
Like many members of the media, I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me by the presidential election. I believed in the conventional wisdom that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. Her loss in the face of our over-confident predictions did further damage to the media’s relationship with the public that we couldn’t afford.
Prior to the election cycle, there were already a lot of things journalists had done in recent years that erode the trust of audiences: making major changes to stories online without so much as an editor’s note, relying on clickbait in headlines and social media posts, teasing or confusing readers in push alerts. These may not seem like big problems, but fixing these bad habits by treating the audience with respect — human to human — can go a long way.
Something we’ve done a better job of in recent years is telling audiences “what we know and what we don’t” as a breaking news situation unfolds. While the process of producing real-time breaking news is somewhat unique, let’s adapt this approach to more types of reporting. We often try too hard to come up with a definitive-sounding conclusion instead of being honest and transparent both throughout the process and in the final product.
A notable exception to the media’s transparency problem this election cycle was The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who showed his work on Twitter as he was reporting on Donald Trump’s charitable giving. And I was inspired by the approach to election-night calls that BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith outlined ahead of the organization’s live Twitter election broadcast (disclosure: I used to work for BuzzFeed). My favorite line: “We don’t believe that our audience is going to trust a news outlet because they’ve got dramatic music, great graphics, or great hair.”
I’m also encouraged by The New York Times’ approach to reporting in Oakland after the city’s devastating warehouse fire. Instead of just giving readers a sense of what they’ve been up to after much of the reporting has been done, they’re starting by establishing a relationship, a conversation while they’re there. Showing their work.
We’ve lost much of the public. The same old tactics won’t work to win them back. In 2017, try something new, taking inspiration from the examples above. Ask yourself why, in your personal life, you trust people. Is it because they talk down to you? Unlikely. It’s probably because you establish a relationship and are able to have genuine conversations.
The election was a wakeup call. We should capitalize on this moment and not fall back into bad habits. If not 2017, then when? I hope we do it now, because otherwise I fear it will be too late.
Laura E. Davis is assistant professor of professional practice at USC Annenberg.