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Newsrooms take the comments sections back from platforms

“Local news organizations should become a driving force for better online public discourse, because Facebook and Twitter aren’t cutting it.”

Journalism’s public trust problem isn’t going away. As the war on truth escalates, news organizations are going to have to counterattack on multiple fronts to win back audience trust. In 2019, journalists will need to to be the aggressor in three areas.

News literacy. Journalists’ and the public’s naiveté about online information warfare has to end. News literacy in the digital age requires an understanding of how misinformers and propagandists are using our open communication networks to manipulate public opinion. News organizations and journalism educators should teach members of the public (and their own journalists) how to stop being used as pawns in the meta-game of online disinformation. Fighting back includes resisting “shiny things” and our impulse to retweet/share false, violent, or damaging speech posted on social media and in effect amplifying it.

One antidote to modern information gamesmanship is more ethics and professional reporting. Don’t repeat the lies. Call them out. Debunk rumors and untruths. Be relentless about keeping the record straight. Muzzle disinformation with context to diminish its power.

Newsroom diversity. News media organizations function best — and can be trusted most — when their newsrooms are as diverse as the communities they serve. News purveyors are not going to attract new audiences (or paying customers) if people don’t trust us to tell their stories. Disenfranchised communities often aren’t seeing themselves adequately or accurately reflected in our products. Newsroom diversity is a form of audience engagement. It is a pathway to greater trust and gaining audience share. A pipeline of talented, diverse journalists is being trained by journalism schools like mine. News organizations should make a point to tap into it.

Online discourse. Overwhelmed news organizations started giving away public dialogue to Facebook and Twitter a half dozen years ago, hoping the social media giants would be better equipped to civilize online discussions. That didn’t happen. The tone and volume of digital discourse has only grown more acrid, emotional, polarized and unequal.

What role are journalists and news organizations playing in the noxious public discourse we have online today? Are we active participants in the toxicity? Or are we uninvolved bystanders? Both stances are equally irresponsible and contribute to journalism’s public trust problem.

To rebuild trust in 2019, local news organizations should become a driving force for better online public discourse, because Facebook and Twitter aren’t cutting it. One of journalism’s democratic responsibilities is to provide reliable forums for public criticism and compromise. Local news organizations have an opportunity to be leaders in this area by aggressively convening and reporting on community conversations with representative stakeholders. Moderate discussions. Listen authentically. Champion democratic norms of informed and reasoned debate. Fight for truth.

Marie K. Shanahan is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut.

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