A return to trust

“Ultimately, I believe that we will convince the public that there’s nothing fake about the reporting coming from our organizations.”

Remember the early days of the web, where it seemed like anything was possible? When anyone with half an idea could start a GeoCities page and build a following for their extensive collection of MIDI music? When Facebook was the place that you could connect with people who shared your class schedule and exchange notes from that lecture you missed? We naively thought that the future would build on these early good-faith interpersonal connections to create a global, interconnected community.

Instead, what we ended up with were social platforms that reinforced isolation, siloing, filter bubbles, and groupthink. The partisan divide is growing wider, and it’s in large part because these systems are sorting us into clusters that are homogeneous — we no longer understand one another because we have become invisible to one another.

As these platforms have aimed to optimize for “time spent” and “likes” rather than meaningful engagement and discussion, the content that rises to the surface is often biased, pandering, or simply fake. This, in turn, has reinforced the worldview of those who simply believe that all news, regardless of its source, is untrustworthy.

And yet we know that there is a hunger for real stories told transparently and honestly. In 2018, I believe that we’ll begin the long process of rebuilding trust in the institution of the fourth estate —
and in turn, the media will help to renew our trust and connections with our fellow citizens.

It all starts with transparency. Especially on digital platforms, it’s essential that news consumers truly understand the full context for the stories that they’re seeing — sourcing, viewpoint, past reporting, etc. Not just transparency around the stories themselves, but also transparency around the algorithms that that invisibly control the stories that we see on social networks and aggregators.

This past year, some progress has been made on those fronts. News organizations have become more attentive to providing better “explainers” and cross-linking to provide a wider view of the stories that they are telling. Facebook, finally beginning to realize their unintentional complicity in bad-faith information distribution, has begun to make strides in better identifying news sourcing and blocking ads that spread false news stories. And, most excitingly to me, the Trust Project has gone live with a series of indicators that publications can encode into the metadata of their pages to help aggregation partners — including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Bing — display the most relevant signifiers of news quality to their audiences.

In the next year, those of us who work on the digital product side of the news business will need to challenge ourselves on how we can continue to build platforms that foster transparency, accountability, and community-building. We will support our colleagues in the newsroom in telling the stories that matter in ways that are impactful and relevant. Ultimately, I believe that we will convince the public that there’s nothing fake about the reporting coming from our organizations.

Dan Newman is the deputy creative director at NPR.

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