Earn trust by working for (and with) readers

“I’m not surprised that audiences think journalism’s highest aim is to hijack their attention and trick their eyeballs into spending a split second on banner ads.”

During the Q&A session of a recent conference, an especially frank attendee asked me: “Why do we need journalists anyway?”

ernst-jan-pfauthIt’s a hard question for a career journalist to hear, but these days, it’s not a surprising one. Americans’ trust in journalism is at a historic low. In a recent Gallup poll, just 32 percent say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. Even real estate agents enjoy a better reputation.

With distrust in the industry so widespread, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that people like my conference questioner doubt journalism’s relevance. But if he were to wake up one day with an illegal toxic waste dump in his backyard, he’d no doubt be wishing someone had been monitoring backroom dealings at city hall.

2017 is the year journalist should really tackle the root problem: restoring the trust of the public. The first step is that we convey why our trade matters. We must be explicit about the reasons why journalism is about more than racking up likes and shares on Facebook with clickbait-y headlines, or giving an inordinate amount of attention to an unusual presidential candidate.

Because we see the above happening every day, I’m not surprised that audiences think journalism’s highest aim is to hijack their attention and trick their eyeballs into spending a split second on banner ads.

But getting someone’s attention should be a means in journalism, not the end goal. What matters is that we use this attention to inform citizens about the world around them. In 2017, we have to gain the trust of our audiences first by articulating this mission and then living up to it.

Here are three suggestions for how we can do that on a day-to-day basis:

  • Be explicit about the goal of your journalism. No one outside the business knows what qualifies as “good journalism” to industry insiders, so let’s consistently explain why we think our work matters and what it could mean to our audiences. “I’m trying to make sure you don’t end up with an illegal waste dump” or “I am trying to give a non-expert a better grasp on what climate change is and why we must take immediate political action.”
  • Work together with your audience. The best way to rebuild trust is to work together, so let’s involve our audience in our reporting. Every reader is an expert at something, either through their job, education, or life experience. Together they form the greatest untapped source of knowledge in the history of journalism. And thanks to communications technology, we now have the opportunity to tap into this. Let’s start with sharing our story ideas, asking for their input and acting like conversation leaders.
  • Don’t just talk about problems — search for solutions. A major reason why people give up on news is the so-called negativity bias. So let’s not just describe what is wrong with the world — let’s actively search for answers. This “constructive journalism” shows readers that journalists are looking out for them, and it motivates them to join the research process and share its findings with friends and family. “Let’s figure out together how we can get rid of that toxic waste!”

I believe that these steps will put us on the path to working for and with our audiences. This will not only lead to more loyal readers (great retention!), but also to a new relationship between readers and their journalists.

Some people are already convinced. Just look at the hundreds of thousands of people who recently subscribed to The New York Times and other outlets because they believe that a Trump presidency will require a strong watchdog.

But for a far, far larger group, we’ll still have to fight to earn trust and demonstrate that journalism can improve the world we all share.

Let’s go.

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