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Journalists can change the way they build stories to create organic news fluency

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When journalists talk about how they wish the public could recognize good reporting from bad reporting or even fakery, the subject often turns to whether the audience has the right skills. The discussion usually falls under the heading of “news literacy,” a body of work that typically involves a curriculum supervised by schools, heavily oriented toward teaching young people “critical thinking skills” as they consume news.

We want to propose something different, an idea that we hope opens new paths and introduces some new language in the discussion about consumers, news, and trust.

We believe journalists have a larger role to play than they may have recognized in helping consumers distinguish good reporting from bad. The people who produce the news can do this by building their journalism differently.

If journalists want their audiences to be able to differentiate solidly reported news content from work that is more speculative, thinly sourced, or backed by rumor or innuendo, then they must create their journalism in ways that make it easier for anyone to recognize those qualities.

In this essay we will lay out a method for doing that.

We think this notion of creating journalism differently — in a way that helps people become more discriminating as they consume more news — could be called “organic” and expand the world of news literacy far beyond the classroom.

We propose a new way of creating journalism that helps audiences become more fluent and more skilled consumers of news the more they consume it.

People working to improve what has been called “news literacy” have worked hard and well for years helping teach primarily younger audiences the skills of thoughtful news consumption.

If we had our way, we would even propose some new language for the discussion as we broaden it to all audiences and to the role journalists can play in advancing these skills. Rather than use the phrase “ literacy,” we would suggest the phrase  “news fluency” gives the conversation more clarity.

Literacy suggests someone is either capable or incapable of performing a task — in the same way one either can or cannot read. That doesn’t aptly describe what is going on with news. People consume news constantly, even at an early age. The issue is whether they recognize the characteristics of good reporting — such as thoroughness, good sourcing, strong evidence, the difference between hearsay and eyewitness evidence and more.

The metaphor of fluency, by contrast, describes the process of mastering something you can already do. Fluency also is something you can accomplish on your own, through conscious effort.

However, we don’t want to get lost in a debate over nomenclature. Our larger purpose here is to emphasize the notion that the public can become more skillful news consumers — organically and instinctively — if journalists build stories differently, looking beyond the traditional news story structure.

Ultimately,  journalism is the act of making information once held by a few available to many so that the public can form opinions on matters of common interest. This is how the modern concept of what we call “journalism” was born from the Enlightenment. It was a means for people to have the information they needed to self-govern.  In this sense, as scholar James Carey put it, journalism is fundamentally conversation among people.

For journalism to be successful, therefore, it is not enough to ask how well the audience understands the methods of journalists. It is just as important to ask how well journalists speak the language of their audiences and know the questions their audiences might ask.

That is why we propose a new way of creating journalism — one that helps audiences become more fluent and more skilled consumers of news, the more they consume it.

We call this idea “organic news fluency.”

We believe that if journalists build their journalism in a way that makes the reporting process and principles more explicit — and, as we will describe,  displayed on top of a story rather than embedded inside it — the public will organically develop skills for recognizing good journalism from bad.

As we will explain in more detail below, this goes beyond the movement toward transparency that has gained momentum in the last couple years as a way of rebuilding trust. It involves journalists anticipating and trying to answer the questions people would logically ask about a particular story. Those questions will vary depending on the type of story: They will be different for a breaking news story or a watchdog story or one that involves the use of a controversial image.

For the moment, however, imagine a format or presentation that, alongside the story, poses some key questions a discriminating or “fluent” news consumer might ask to decide what to make of the story.  Among the possibilities:

  • What is new here?
  • What evidence is there?
  • What sources did you talk to and why them?
  • What facts don’t we know yet?
  • What, if anything, is still in dispute?

These are some of the basic questions taught in most “news literacy” curricula. They are also ones outlined in the book, “Blur: How to Tell What’s True in the Age of Information Overload,” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, a co-author of this post. Most importantly, they’re the sort of questions editors and reporters ask themselves everyday in newsrooms as they evaluate stories.

In a typical piece of news content, however, the questions may or may not be answered explicitly. Sometimes journalists even write “around” what they aren’t sure of. Indeed, “Never raise a question you can’t answer in a story” was an axiom taught in journalism schools for years.

And in a traditional news presentation, if these questions are addressed, the discussion of evidence, significance and sourcing is usually embedded in the story narrative and it is assumed the audience will recognize the cues.

Imagine, however, if more journalists were to raise and answer these questions in an element placed at the top of the narrative.

Imagine, however, if more journalists were to raise and answer these questions in an element placed at the top of the narrative — in boxes, billboards, rollovers, annotations, popup windows or other treatments. Questions such as “What’s our evidence?” or “What is new here?” or “What is unknown?” would be answered quickly and would make key details of reporting easier to see. We believe they would also pull more audiences into the story text itself. Just as important, consumers will become familiar with and begin to ask these questions themselves naturally or “organically” as they encounter news.

Consider how a similar approach in a different industry has changed Americans’ behavior over the past 24 years with food. In 1994, the U.S. began requiring all packaged foods to bear standard nutrition labeling that discloses what went into making the product.

A Food and Drug Administration study conducted in 2014 found that 77 percent  of consumers sometimes use the nutrition label when purchasing a food item, and 50 percent  do so “most of the time.” A similar FDA study in 2008 also found 49 percent  of consumers had recently changed their mind about a food purchase because they read a nutrition label.

Now think of a nutrition label for news, one that answers “What went into making this product?” Imagine if half the American adult population, 125 million people, “most of the time” saw such information on the news stories they read, and similar numbers said such information recently changed their mind about which news to trust.

This is what we mean by journalists building stories differently so that consumers can become more fluent about the way news works, organically, as they consume more news content.

In an earlier time, when technology and space were limited, embedding the reporting elements inside the narrative might have been sufficient. It was often the only option. Elements such as hyperlinks, rollovers, popup windows and the ability to go deeper than the narrative didn’t exist.

Today is a more skeptical time. Those old formats are insufficient.

3 virtues of organic news fluency

We believe this idea of building news stories to encourage organic news fluency has three distinct virtues.

  • First, audiences would refine their news skills as they consumed news. News fluency has thus moved out of the classroom and into our everyday practice of news consumption.
  • Second, we believe this approach will make the reporting at good news organizations even better because journalists know they will have to make their reporting process more explicit to the public.
  • Third, to the extent that transparency builds trust, building news stories differently in the way we have in mind may also help rebuild trust in news organizations, at least among some consumers.

At a time when the public is so manifestly questioning the journalism available to them, it makes sense to think about how to show the elements of good reporting differently, moving from “trust me” to “show me” journalism.

In the “trust me” era of journalism, journalists said, in effect, “I have learned this and I work for this organization so you should trust me.”

Today, in the “show me” era, we have reached a moment when consumers are faced with more content, more poorly reported content, and even political propaganda posing as news — sometimes from “news organizations” that do not exist.

In this kind of environment, many consumers rightly demand, “Show me why I should believe this particular story.”

At a time when the public is so manifestly questioning the journalism available to them, it makes sense to think about how to show the elements of good reporting differently, moving from “trust me” to “show me” journalism.

And at a time when many stories are “atomized,” shared piecemeal on social platforms, it is even more important that the reporting that went into a story is made explicit so audiences can assess it.

Building stories differently to create organic news fluency

How can journalists build their work differently? How do they start?

Do we mean putting a box on top of every story with a news organization’s code of ethics? Or a link to “more stories about this topic”? No.

The idea that we can build stories in a way that makes the evidence and reporting more explicit — not just embedded in the narrative — starts by journalists asking themselves a simple but important question when they are sitting down to think about how to present their story.

“What questions would this story raise in a skeptical consumer’s mind?”

Those questions may include: Why does this story matter? What is the evidence and who are the sources? Why are there anonymous quotes?

The questions audiences may have will vary by the kind of story.

What a consumer may wonder about a breaking news event is different than what they will wonder about an exposé a news organization has been working on for months.

In the breaking news story, where information is fluid and in real time, the questions are: “What happened? What do we know? What don’t we know?” (A few news organizations have adopted this already.)

In the exposé or investigation, the questions consumers might rightly ask up front are: “Why was this story written? What is the evidence? How was the reporting done?”

What a consumer may wonder about a breaking news event is different than what they will wonder about an exposé a news organization has been working on for months.

Some of these questions editors can anticipate, based on conversations with audiences and questions they’ve asked about past stories. Other questions, such as “What tough journalistic calls did we have to make on this story?” will come from discussions that occurred in the newsroom.

And journalists are not limited to looking back on past experience. Social media, comments, online polls and public events have made it easier and more effective for reporters and editors to talk with news consumers and listen to their questions and concerns.

So the first step is thinking about — and asking — what questions audiences may have about a story and then providing those answers explicitly in a way that is not merely hidden inside the story. And that simple step guides the journalist into a new and important mindset of putting themselves in the audience’s shoes. “Billboarding” their questions in a visible manner in the content helps make the journalist audience-focused.

And when you imagine the different kinds of questions each type of story might pose, you are well on your way to creating news that we believe will be better reported, better trusted — and that will begin to build news fluency at a far wider scale than a classroom.

The first step is thinking about — and asking — what questions audiences may have about a story and then providing those answers explicitly in a way that is not merely hidden inside the story.

What follows are some initial ideas to help journalists begin this process. We have chosen nine story types and identified some possible questions consumers might ask about them.

We also have suggested some different types of presentations that will work in different platforms.

In the section that follows, we will walk through some of these story types and present some possible ways of “billboarding” these questions and answers prominently.

We also will walk through some questions that news people might ask internally to help guide themselves through the process.

And finally, we will pose some questions that consumers might wonder about a news organization and its people, not specific to a story. This last group of questions borrow heavily from the work on transparency and trust being done by others, including Joy Mayer at Trusting News and Sally Lehrman at The Trust Project.

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