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5 ways to build trust with your readers going into 2017

Studies have shown that trust in the media is at an all-time low. Especially after a particularly contentious election season, building relationships with readers is essential for newsrooms.

Research from API shows that building trust with readers is not only a journalistic aspiration, but a business imperative. People who put a higher premium on trust are more likely to engage with a news source by sharing a story or following the source on social media and more likely to pay for news.

And with an endless supply of news sources online, once trust is broken, readers may not come back: “If you lose my trust, I just move away and I’m not coming back. There are plenty of other sites to look at and you’re all competing for our eyes,” one focus group participant told us.

At the 2016 Journalism & Women Symposium in Roanoke, Va., API presented findings from our research on trust in the media and asked attendees — including journalists from outlets like NPR, Associated Press and The Atlantic — to come up with their own ideas for how journalists can build trust with their readers. Here are some of the themes that emerged:

1. Get to know your community and help your community get to know your newsroom

Journalists need to get out of their newsrooms on a regular basis and interact with the communities they’re serving, several groups suggested. That might take place through community events, but could also happen through connecting with people on social media.

Newsrooms also need to help readers get to know their journalists. Reporters can use video and Facebook Live streams to put a face to the byline. On news organizations’ websites, better branding and “About” pages can help explain to readers how the newsroom works.

At Gannett’s Indianapolis Star, the newsroom has held a series of “coffee and news” meetings, inviting community members to take a look into the morning news meeting. The meetings are held in local coffee shops, and journalists explain to attendees what stories are getting covered — and why they’re being covered.

2. Be more forthcoming about corrections, and make them easier to find

Corrections are often hard to find both online and in print newspapers, sometimes giving the impression that newsrooms are trying to hide their mistakes. Own up to your mistakes, and readers will trust you more, JAWS attendees said. Corrections should be easier to find both in print and online, and clearly explain to readers what went wrong.

The Columbia Missourian encourages its readers to submit corrections, from subject-verb agreement errors to factual inaccuracies. The newspaper holds a monthly contest called “Show Me The Errors” to reward people who submit corrections.

3. Add more context to stories

Journalists can also include more context in their stories, several groups said. That might mean going back to update a breaking news story, or linking back to previous stories when covering something that’s ongoing. Adding more context helps build trust with readers by showing how you’re following a story and giving them more opportunities to understand the story.

In its coverage of the Oakland fire, The New York Times shared regular updates on what its reporters uncovered as they reported the story. That included outlining what questions reporters were asking and what they planned to do next in their reporting.

4. Change the face of your newsroom and talk to sources you don’t normally talk to

Newsrooms need to better represent the communities they’re serving, JAWS attendees said. That doesn’t just mean considering diversity in hiring decisions, but also including diversity training as part of newsroom training.

The diversity of sources cited also needs to better reflect the communities newsrooms are serving. One way to address that is to seek out “new” experts in communities you’re already covering, some of whom may not think of themselves as an expert.

Another idea would be to partner with diverse media outlets in your community. For example, a newspaper could partner with a Spanish-language radio station to produce a series on issues important to the Hispanic community in their area.

In a similar line of thinking, The New York Times published its 2015 nail salon exposé in a total of four languages — English, Korean, Chinese and Spanish — to reach the communities included in the series and affected by the abuses uncovered in the exposé.

5. Be more transparent about how you report and what your sources are

Readers are often unaware of what actually happens in the reporting process. Let your readers in, JAWS attendees said, and be more transparent about how journalism happens. Some ways newsrooms can do that: Clearly explain the difference between an “op ed” and a straight news story, write more stories about the process of how you reported a story or found something out, make the distinctions between the business and editorial sides of the newsroom clear, and explain to your sources what “transparency” means in your newsroom.

Mother Jones’ private prisons investigation is a good example of a newsroom explaining how they reported a story: In a separate article, editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery explains why Mother Jones sent a reporter to work in a corporate-run prison and how investigating corporations has changed since the early ‘90s.

You can view the groups’ notes and ideas from the session as a Google Doc here.

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