This post is part of API’s 2020 election network, a project to help local news leaders and experts address misinformation and election integrity issues in the lead up to November. On Thursday, March 26 at 1 p.m. ET, Joy — director of Trusting News — will be answering your questions about building trust. Sign up to join that discussion.
Journalists deal in facts, and they thrive on getting to the bottom of rumors and disproving false claims. Those goals are consistent with the public service mission of journalism, and they apply to reporters digging into traditional stories, to fact-checkers investigating candidates’ claims and to social media editors debunking assertions made in comments.
But does your audience know that you’re looking out for them and helping them navigate what has become the Wild Wild West of Information? Have you said clearly that you consider policing misinformation to be part of your job? That it’s important for the health of your community? And that you need their assistance?
At Trusting News, we dive deep into audience perceptions of journalism. We study what journalists get credit for, what they are accused of and what people do and don’t know about how they do their jobs. We collect research, work with newsrooms to test strategies and advise journalists on how to demonstrate credibility.
We know that when your audience doesn’t understand your ethics, your motivations or your process, they don’t automatically give you the benefit of the doubt. Quite the opposite — they often fill the void of information with the worst possible explanation.
If you have a goal of being a reliable source of information and helping your audience navigate their information worlds, you should communicate that clearly. We wrote last week about ways to demonstrate the credibility of your coronavirus coverage. In this post, we’ll focus on misinformation broadly. Here are three things you can do to help solidify your position as a trusted source and guide now and into election season.
Speak directly to your audience.
Look for ways to talk more personally about your goals and processes. If you work in broadcast, you’re already used to injecting first-person language into anchor intros or two-ways. The same strategy can be used in social media posts, newsletters, columns and anywhere else that allows for more voice and informality.
The Coloradoan made a post in a Facebook group it manages specifically to make its approach to misinformation clear. This idea probably feels familiar: If you moderate a Facebook group, you likely delete posts that contain inflammatory, unconfirmed claims. But do the non-journalists in the group know that?
While you’re engaging in this direct communication, actively seek tips about fake sites and rumors. Turn your engaged audience members into a team of scouts, alerting you to misinformation. Minnesota Public Radio invites users to submit examples from their own social media feeds. PolitFact has a standing form on its website.
Or just invite people to get in touch with you in general to report election issues or tips. But take a page out of Wisconsin Watch’s playbook and give some examples of the types of things you want to know. Doing so helps users picture what they might contribute (beyond “send us a tip or idea”). In a story describing a collaborative project with an UW-Madison investigative reporting class examining voter suppression and disinformation efforts, Wisconsin Watch laid out its agenda while inviting participation:
How you can get involved: The class is looking for people who have been affected by voter suppression, intimidation efforts, disinformation or interference of any kind and are willing to share their story. We want to hear your stories and amplify voices that often go unheard.
Did you have a hard time getting the proper ID to vote? Have you seen misleading information about how or where to vote? Have you been discouraged from voting by threats of criminal prosecution or other intimidation?
Are you on the list of voters targeted to be removed from the rolls?
Have you seen false information about candidates or issues?
Teach people how to navigate the news.
If you want your community to find your information credible, show them how to know what credible information looks like.
Minnesota Public Radio put together a toolkit called Can You Believe It? that explains how misinformation spreads and how consumers can fight it. It includes advice on navigating social feeds, how to know if political polls are credible, how disinformation affects local communities. It also includes an invitation to submit examples of problematic posts. The project has been promoted in call-in shows, in news shows, in daily newsletters and on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. It will (if public health allows) also include in-person events throughout the state.
Catharine Richert, an MPR senior reporter involved in the project, said the newsroom knows their audience responds well to explainers like voter guides and FAQs. The Can You Believe It? project feels like a continuation of that kind of work. Listeners rely on MPR to help them understand the world, and this is a part of that service.
Another powerful piece of explanation is The Washington Post’s guide to manipulated video. The interactive project breaks down three primary ways videos are being altered: “footage taken out of context, deceptively edited or deliberately altered.” Readers scroll through annotated examples of each.
Your newsroom might not be able to invest in creating a misinformation toolkit, and you might not have the expertise to explain how videos are manipulated. But any newsroom can share links to other organizations’ projects. Doing so sends a message that you are on the side of your community’s information health.
It’s also important to also call out misinformation swirling about your own community, even if it’s coming from other journalists. After all, you’re working to serve the public, not protect your competitors’ egos. That can be done without a spirit of spitefulness but instead with a tone that shows you’re on the side of your community. For inspiration, see how WMBB in Florida corrected a false claim during hurricane season.
Show what makes your coverage credible.
Along with pointing out how to spot irresponsible information, be sure to demystify your own process and explain why it’s worthy of trust.
Write about where your reporters are stationed, how editors insist on proper context, and how facts are checked. Write about how journalists keep an eye out for bias in their own work. Also address directly the notion that personal political views do not influence coverage, like Susan Potter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, did in this explainer about legislative coverage.
Both chambers of the Legislature are controlled by Republicans, and the governor and other statewide leaders are also Republicans. That means that issues and bills they push have a far greater chance of becoming law. As a result, we typically write more stories examining and vetting Republican initiatives than we do bills sponsored by Democrats if they have little chance of passing. When Democrats controlled the Legislature before 2003, the reverse was true.
Our scrutiny of elected officials is not based on personal political views or preferences but on our responsibility to make sure Georgians know what their leaders are doing and how their tax money is spent. As a team of professionals, we hold each other accountable for being evenhanded and fair.
It often seems to journalists like these ideas should be known to our audiences already. Why do we need to tell them we are on the side of facts?
The bottom line is this: We can wish our audience were better informed about how journalism works and inclined to give us credit for our good intentions. Or we can get to work actually making that happen.
A March 2017 survey conducted by the Media Insight Project (a venture of the American Press Institute) is full of facts about perceptions of news. It showed that 34 percent of Americans said the news media protects democracy, 30 percent said it hurts democracy, and 35 percent said neither statement applies.
If that’s where we’re starting from, we have a long way to go. It’s also important for your ability to be seen as a trusted resource — and to survive and thrive — that your audience respect the important role you play in your community’s information landscape.
Trusting News is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the American Press Institute, Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation.