Nieman Foundation at Harvard
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Feb. 5, 2019, 9 a.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   February 5, 2019

Radical transparency, committed philanthropy, disinformation-debunking technology, organizational diversity — and a year of service: There are some of the recommendations from the 27-member Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy, highlighting examples of successful experiments in a 200-plus page report a year and a half in the making.

“We, as individual citizens of a great nation, need to take measures now, not next year, to maintain the democracy that has developed over nearly two and a half centuries,” the authors write. “This report is only a beginning point — a compass, not a map.”

If you’re not a regular Nieman Lab reader or otherwise familiar with how the decline in institutional trust involved the downfall of the journalism industry and a healthy democracy under siege, you can read the full report and learn about the backstory. (There are enlightening charts!) Alongside the creation of the commission, Knight funded research into restoring trust in news, released last year, and put forth $2.5 million toward projects attempting to do just that in 2017. The Aspen Institute helped congregate the commission as well.

But let’s dig into what the commissioners — including New York Public Library president Anthony Marx, former president and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education Jamie Woodson (they were the co-chairs), Frontline executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society faculty director Jonathan Zittrain, Google VP of news Richard Gingras, Facebook product manager Anthea Watson Strong, and others — suggest:

How to restore trust in journalism

News organizations need to be radically transparent and interwoven with the communities they cover:

  • Clearly label opinion and partisan commentators to distinguish them from news.
  • To address perceptions of media bias, emphasize reporting and evidence-based commentary over opinion.
  • Update and implement best practices on corrections, fact-checking, anonymous sources, the role of political pundits on broadcast and cable and advertising formats that blur the line between content and commerce.
  • Engage with citizens and communities to strengthen the quality and relevance of reporting to increase trust.

Examples include The Trust Project, The Washington Post’s “How to Be a Reporter” video series, The Marshall Project’s public report on the demographics of their staff and other general “how we got this story” explainers.

Listen to the audience (and non-audience) and build a relationship by answering their questions. The Solutions Journalism Network, engaged journalism through the Community Listening and Engagement Fund, and citizen newsgatherers like City Bureau’s trained documenters are all examples the report highlights.

Philanthropy still needs to pony up more for quality journalism, especially locally:

As profit-driven newspapers continue their economic decline, the Commission recommends accelerated investment in nonprofit, mission-driven journalistic entities we call Community News Organizations (CNOs)…. CNOs vary widely in their scope and individual mandates, but essentially all share a single raison d’être: to cover topics of civic importance that many legacy news organizations have been forced to de-emphasize or abandon altogether. Perhaps the most obvious example is reporting from the state capital.

Community informative corporations, public benefit corporations, and venture philanthropy in the style of the American Journalism Project (cofounder John Thornton is on the commission) are other suggested models. And collaboration is given another nudge: “While journalism has a tradition of fierce competitiveness, the current state of local journalism finances and the importance of the mission warrant a fresh look at how entities can work together to inform the public.”

Wise up about technology instead of fleeing it.

The Commission, therefore, looks to journalists and technologists, ideally working together, to address this blight on trust and democracy. Technology companies need to guard the privacy of users’ personal information. But sharing data with journalists and researchers — without disclosing personally identifying information — is critical for independent reporting and analysis on how social media are being used to manipulate users with disinformation. This requires more collaboration between technology companies and journalists…

The Commission encourages news organizations and journalists to take responsibility for educating the public about the spectrum of media manipulation and its dangers. As scholar danah boyd observes, “The press’s unique role in our country is rooted in a historically unique capacity to amplify information. Yet, just because the news media is no longer the only gatekeeper does not mean that the responsibilities of democratic governance can be ignored.”

Diversify the newsroom.

It is clear to this Commission that greater inclusion would increase trust in the news product. We therefore call for news organizations to reflect their entire communities in their news stories and news feeds. Specifically, the Commission calls for a nationwide commitment to diversity in all facets of the news ecosystem. This applies to the people hired, the stories covered, the viewpoints considered and the authorities quoted. These pathways into journalism will strengthen communities and sustain the industry. They are vital regardless of the economic stresses the industry faces.

How to restore trust in democracy through technology and active citizenship

The commission argues several more points, namely for both tech companies and individual citizens to take a stronger stake in this mission. Platforms need to protect users as information fiduciaries and be more transparent and willing to negotiate with individual users on how information is chosen to display to them (a similar idea floated by Oxford and Stanford researchers recently).

Individuals are charged with creating a better system for civic literacy, participating in locally trusted institutions’ cross-partisan dialogues, and participating in service programs that could involve work in libraries or local public service journalism.

“Democracy and the news media are inextricably intertwined, and it is clear that both are in crisis. American democracy suffers not only from a decline of trust in the ‘other’ to govern, but also from a breakdown of our shared concept of citizenship,” the commission concludes.

Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
“We will all have to adjust to a new workflow. If it is a bottleneck, it will be a failure.”
“Impossible to approach the reporting the way I normally would”: How Rachel Aviv wrote that New Yorker story on Lucy Letby
“So much of the media coverage — and the trial itself — started at the point at which we’ve determined that [Lucy] Letby is an evil murderer; all her texts, notes, and movements are then viewed through that lens.”
Increasingly stress-inducing subject lines helped The Intercept surpass its fundraising goal
“We feel like we really owe it to our readers to be honest about the stakes and to let them know that we truly cannot do this work without them.”