Trust comes first

“Listen with the humility you would in any broken relationship you want to repair. And then be willing to make some changes.”

What if journalists put a summary of their sources right at the top of a story?

This suggestion, which recently came out of a Trust Project public workshop, may sound counterintuitive and crazy. Why would we clutter up the top of the page, that valuable real estate, before a reader even gets to the first compelling sentence?

Maybe because people are looking for quick ways to evaluate the worthiness of a story. Maybe because newsrooms should try some radical forms of transparency if they wish to keep their audience — and their role as a trusted source of information in a democracy.

Journalists have been able to move the needle on trust this year. The annual Gallup poll on U.S. confidence in the news has ticked up, reaching its highest point since 2011 after a discouraging dip to an all-time low. I have more of a plea than a prediction. Want to maintain our progress? Then listen. Listen with the humility you would in any broken relationship you want to repair. And then be willing to make some changes.

Leaders from more than 75 news organizations listened to reader insights and collaborated to come up with the Trust Indicators. These disclosures about the site, reporter and story show the due diligence that makes journalism distinct. They offer up information about newsroom standards on ethics, diversity, and corrections. They give details about ownership and who’s on the masthead. Background on the reporter. And more. The Center for Media Engagement studied the Trust Indicators and found that across political persuasion and demographic difference, these transparency standards had an impact. They improved people’s evaluations of the trustworthiness of the news site and qualifications of the reporter.

Newsrooms get the need to build trust and are willing to show their work more clearly than ever. But they hesitate when it comes to the deeper change people say they want. One of the more effective Indicators, the study suggests, is to briefly detail the reporting method and sources. Yet the news sites in our pilot group at first resisted implementing these features. Not due to fear of disclosure, but because they might mean more work for time-pressed reporters and would disrupt the traditional article format and advertising space. Another popular request was for diverse sources. Again, most news sites see the common sense behind inclusive reporting across many differences. But some have paused before making a public commitment. In our workshop, people wanted the Trust Indicators to be more prominent. That’s scary for newsrooms, which have put resources and care into their current display. News executives understand why consistency across news sites offers clarity. Yet some avoid changing their habits of doing certain things, certain ways.

The academic literature exploring when and why we trust information describes trust as a relationship. As the Gallup poll suggests, doubling down on good reporting seems to help. Transparency seems to help. And yet, a good relationship relies on mutual high regard and respect. It requires give-and-take, a willingness to be held accountable and to be responsive. We can rebuild our relationship with the public. To do so, we’ll need to trust the people we want to trust us, and to act boldly on their insights.

Sally Lehrman is a science and medical writer who created and leads the Trust Project.

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