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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.

Templates and tools for encouraging organic news fluency

Every story is an opportunity to have a conversation with your audience about what journalism is for and how journalists conduct their work. Each type of story presents different questions and different ways to encourage news fluency, in an organic and contextual manner. In this section, we’ll list nine types of stories and the unique questions that news consumers might ask about each type. (You can click on a category below to go directly to those questions.)

Story categories

Below, we’ve listed questions designed to address news fluency in various types of story content. You might choose three or four to display prominently or “billboard” near the start of your story, and answer the remainder within the story itself. By including these questions and answers, you are also engaging readers with your reporting, improving the standards of your reporting and building trust.

This is just a start. If you are a journalist, we hope you think of other questions or other types of stories. That means you are thinking about creating journalism that encourages news fluency. If you’re a news consumer (and most of us are, even if we’re journalists as well) we hope you’ll let your local journalists know about clarifications you need and questions you have.

The “standard news story” is the daily or typical story produced by most news organizations. Examples might include a story about a public agency meeting, a new business in town, a new dean at the local university.

Questions: Here are some questions news consumers might ask about a standard news story. Consider choosing a few that are important in this case to display at the beginning of your story and offer your audience a way to ask their own questions.

  • Why did we do this story? (Why does this story matter?)
  • What’s new here?
  • What questions did we set out to answer?
  • What do we know now?
  • What don’t we know?
  • What’s the evidence?
  • Who are the sources and why were they chosen?
  • Why did we use unnamed sources?
  • What might happen next? What could change?
  • How and when will we cover it?
  • How can you respond or get involved?

These are project stories — other than deep investigations — that required considerable time and effort. The topic might be a long-term trend or social problem or phenomenon. Why the story was written and what follow-up stories could be done are particularly significant.

Questions: Here are some questions news consumers might ask about a project story. Consider choosing a few that are appropriate, and display them at the beginning of your story.

  • Why did we do this story? (Why does this story matter?)
  • Who’s in this story (the “cast of characters”)?
  • What questions did we set out to answer?
  • What do we know now?
  • What don’t we know?
  • What’s the evidence?
  • Who are the sources and why were they chosen?
  • We had some tough journalism decisions to make. What were they?
  • Why did we use unnamed sources?
  • What might happen now and how will we cover it?
  • What are some potential solutions?
  • How can you respond or get involved?


Investigative projects differ from general projects in at least one important respect: The news organization takes on the additional role of exposing wrongdoing or something else that might be hidden. Often the burden of proof is higher. The investigative story tends to be less conversational and more like a prosecutor’s brief that identifies wrongdoing and those who are responsible. That changes, subtly but importantly, some of the questions consumers may ask of you and the story. Particularly important questions are: Why did we do this story? What newsgathering obstacles did you tackle and what tough choices did we make?

Questions: Here are some questions news consumers might ask about an investigative story. Consider choosing a few that are appropriate, and display them at the beginning of your story.

  • Why did we do this story? (Why does this story matter?)
  • Who’s in this story (the “cast of characters”)?
  • What do these terms and phrases mean? (Provide glossary of terms.)
  • What questions did we set out to answer?
  • What do we know now?
  • What don’t we know?
  • What’s the evidence?
  • Who are the sources and why were they chosen?
  • Why are there unnamed sources? What other tough journalism decisions and news-gathering obstacles did we tackle?
  • What might happen next, and how and when will we cover it?
  • What are the potential solutions?
  • How can you respond or get involved?


Fact-checking as a form of journalistic writing refers to the assessment of statements and rhetoric for accuracy and truthfulness, as well as the debunking of viral stories and rumors. The statements typically are made by people in politics, government or other powerful positions who are held accountable for their words and actions. Fact-checks require original sources, intense research, and high-quality data. Topic choices and source selection are important questions here.

Questions: Here are some questions news consumers might ask about a fact-checking story. Consider choosing a few that are appropriate, and display them at the beginning of your story.

  • Why did we do this particular fact-check?
  • How did we decide on our conclusion?
  • What’s the evidence?
  • Who are the experts we consulted and why were they chosen?
  • What were the primary sources we used and why were they chosen?
  • What other sources do you recommend? Let us know. (Create a Google form or another way for your audience to connect with you.)
  • What don’t we know?
  • What is the response from the subject of this fact check?
  • What additional questions do you have?


“Explainers” summarize a complicated topic to make it more accessible and useful for news consumers. The type of encapsulated analysis is often referenced over and over, to augment another piece of reporting. While Vox is often credited with popularizing the modern explainer, many other news organizations have followed their lead. Particularly important elements of explainers include a definition of terms and a clear list of sources.

Here are some questions news consumers might ask about an explainer story. Consider choosing a few that are appropriate, and display them at the beginning of your story.

  • What do these terms and phrases mean? (Provide a glossary of terms.)
  • Why did we do this story? (What current issue does this story relate to?)
  • Who’s in this story (“cast of characters”)?
  • What do we know now? What’s the evidence?
  • What don’t we know?
  • Who/what are the sources and why were they chosen?
  • What are the potential next steps in this story? What could change? What are the options and variables?
  • What are the potential solutions?
  • Where can you find more information?


When important events happen unexpectedly — such as a violent public crime, the sudden death of a city official, or a surprise move announced by a sports team — public interest is typically immediate and intense. Their questions may center on what happened, what is known and what isn’t known.

Here are some questions news consumers might ask about a breaking news story. Consider choosing a few that are appropriate, and display them at the beginning of your story.

  • What just happened? (Provide context and timetable.)
  • What is still unfolding?
  • What do we know now?
  • What don’t we know? What are the questions we are trying to answer?
  • What additional questions do you have? Let us know. (Give people a quick way to post questions, such as through a social media platform.)
  • Who are our sources?
  • If we have anonymous sources, why?
  • Are there previous stories to provide context?
  • Who is covering this story and where are they now? Where are they headed?


These are stories that must be covered in real time but are expected and scheduled. Examples include a governor’s inauguration, a murder trial or a public hearing on a controversial issue. Previous stories or explainers to provide context and “What’s next?” are significant elements here.

Here are some questions news consumers might ask about live coverage. Consider choosing a few that are appropriate, and display them at the beginning of your story.

  • Who is covering this story and where are they now? Where are they headed?
  • What is happening now? What’s coming up? (Provide timetable.)
  • What do we know now?
  • What don’t we know? What are the questions we are trying to answer?
  • Why does this story matter? Why are we here at this event?
  • Are there previous stories to provide context? (Provide explainer.)
  • What are the options/variables on the outcome of this story?
  • What are the potential solutions?


Features encompass a wide range of topics and formats, from a “day in the life”-type stories to an athlete profile to fashion stories. Most often, the content revolves around people or a group of people. Why the story was written and how those people were chosen to be featured can be important questions for news consumers.

Here are some questions news consumers might ask about a feature story. Consider choosing a few that are appropriate, and display them at the beginning of your story.

  • Why did we do this story?
  • What was its origin? How did we find out about it?
  • Why did we choose this particular person or group or event to feature?
  • What’s new here?
  • What questions did we set out to answer?
  • How can news consumers respond or get involved?


Opinion content can include political commentary, local theater reviews, editorials and “op eds.” While opinion writing typically takes a stand or a side, writers still must abide by journalistic standards of accuracy and transparency. Questions may focus on the credentials of the writers, how this content differs from news reporting, and the origin of the data and evidence they may cite.

Here are some questions news consumers might ask about opinion writing. Consider choosing a few that are appropriate, and display them at the beginning of your story.

  • Why does this publication write opinions?
  • Who is the writer and what are the writer’s credentials and background?
  • What is the writer’s relationship to the subject matter? Why were they selected to write this?
  • If data and other supporting information is cited, where did it come from?
  • What are the primary points the writer is trying to advance?
  • Why does this topic matter? What’s the news context?
  • What are some of the counterpoints or alternative ideas or solutions?
  • How can news consumers respond?

 

While each story presents its own questions about transparency and fluency,  here’s our recommended basic checklist of elements you can include with most types of journalism. The elements can be prepared or designed in advance, and can be permanent features with all content or can be quickly “plugged in” at appropriate points.

  • Author bio page
  • Author’s body of work (links)
  • How to contact the writer or editor (e-mail, phone, social media)
  • List of editors, researchers, data reporters, photographers or others who contributed to the story
  • List of sources used in story
  • Uploaded documents, audio, video, and any other external material

Next steps and more resources

We hope this essay will provoke some new ideas about how to help people become more discriminating consumers of news. Our recommendations boil down to a few basic ideas:

  1. Journalists have a role to play in helping consumers become more discriminating. Being fluent as a news consumer is not only the responsibility of news audiences.
  2. Journalists can begin to help audiences become more discriminating by building and presenting content differently, in a way that explicitly displays and answers key questions reader may have — through boxes, billboards, and other elements placed on top of or alongside traditional narratives.
  3. The questions readers have may vary by story type — and identifying how different stories raise different questions is a critical step.
  4. We are proposing a new term for what has been called “news literacy.” Instead of literacy — which suggests one is either capable of competently understanding news or not — we think the concept of “news fluency” is more apt. It more accurately describes the challenge of news consumption and implies that both the communicator and the audience have roles to play.
  5. Finally, if journalists do begin to build their journalism differently in the ways we suggest, we believe there are host of benefits. First, news fluency can scale to all consumers of news, rather than being confined only to young people and only in certain classrooms. Second, news content will improve if journalists know they will have to show their work more explicitly. And, third, to the extent people see journalists becoming more audience-focused, it may help with the issue of trust in media, building on the work of others in that field.

We’d also like to hear from you. If you are intrigued by these notions, or have already taken steps in this direction, please contact us.

Our goal is to collect as much information as we can about these efforts, teach them, and build what we hope is a new path in the work around trust and audience-focused journalism.

Other groups working on related issues

Improving media literacy among children and adults in the U.S. has been a goal for many years. Because of concerns over digital misinformation and the declining trust in American media, related efforts have launched more recently. Here are just some of the organizations working in support of media literacy through a variety of projects and methods:

Center for News Literacy programs are “designed to help students develop critical thinking skills in order to judge the reliability and credibility of information.” Stony Brook University School of Journalism. Howard Schneider, executive director.

MediaWise is “aimed at helping middle and high school students be smarter consumers of news and information online.” Poynter Institute, Local Media Association, Stanford University, Google.

National Association for Media Literacy Education aims to “see media literacy be highly valued by all and widely practiced as an essential life skill for the 21st Century.”  Developed through the Partnership for Media Education, a public/private collaboration. Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director.

NewsCo/Lab efforts are “aimed at helping the public find new ways of understanding and engaging with news and information.” Arizona State University. Dan Gillmor and Eric Newton, co-founders.

News Integrity Initiative examines “new ways to achieve news literacy, broadly defined.” CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

The News Literacy Project “helps young people use the aspirational standards of quality journalism to determine what they should trust, share and act on.” Alan C. Miller, founder and CEO.

The Trust Project is designed to help news organizations provide “truthful, verified news and information in a context that gives them meaning.” Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Sally Lehrman, director.

Trusting News Project set out to answer “How do news consumers decide what information to trust, and how can journalists teach users to be smarter consumers and sharers?” Reynolds Journalism Institute. Joy Mayer, director.

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