Several years ago, Sally Lehrman realized that she and her journalism colleagues had been bemoaning the same issues for the previous 15 years: Trust and truth in media were in peril from a number of causes.
To try to put some of those conversations to bed and make progress on those issues, she began The Trust Project. It’s a nonprofit consortium of global news organizations working with tech platforms and search engines to help surface quality news on search and social. When she thinks What the Future, she’s wondering what media can do to continue earning the public’s trust.
Matt Carmichael: What was going on when you started The Trust Project?
Sally Lehrman: Around 1997, when you saw more news organizations starting to go online, that’s when you started to see this steady decline in trust in news. Journalists had been blaming trust issues on external factors, like the tech algorithms or trying to hit certain metrics. I thought, well, why can’t we flip the picture? Why can’t we create a digital space that supports high-quality journalism? And I talked to some people that I knew in technology, and they said, Yeah, you can do that. All you have to do is train the algorithm to know what quality journalism is.
Carmichael: We have been working together on a project about the future of trust for media (see “What happens when trust is misplaced.”). Together, we identified four factors that have a big impact: nationalism and populism; tech advances; economic/business model issues; and disinformation. Why do those things, in particular, matter so much?
Lehrman: Those are the macro forces that shape the ability of accurate information to flow freely throughout society. We need people to be able to have access to trustworthy information so they can make decisions about their own lives, so that they can contribute to their local communities and build a community that they’re happy living in, and so that they can influence and shape their governments. We can’t do any of that unless we have a shared understanding of what the facts are.
If populism and nationalism shape our worldview, we’re not going to be open to facts that contradict that worldview. If the economics are dire for journalism, then the hard work that journalists have to do to seek and report the truth won’t be sustainable. That’s what we’re already suffering from to some extent. And disinformation is an incredible challenge. As journalists, what we have to do is raise up a countering force and make it as strong as possible.
Carmichael: What are some challenges for readers and news organizations?
Lehrman: We interviewed people to try to understand what they value in the news, when they trust it, and when they don’t. We were all worried that people didn’t really care about the news. And in fact, they did across the board, even people that were really angry about journalism. But people felt frustrated in a lot of different ways. They were frustrated because they thought journalists had a hidden agenda. And they were frustrated because they thought news and opinion were blending. They felt like all they would hear from in journalism were people at high levels of business and government. And they weren’t seeing people like themselves in the news.
Carmichael: What are the challenges for news organizations?
Lehrman: One is, that in this digital environment, everything looks the same. You can’t tell the difference between a news story produced by journalists that has standards and values behind it, and any other piece of information that might be designed to sell you a pair of shoes, or sell you a political perspective.
Carmichael: You talked a little bit about opinion journalism. How does it hurt or enhance truth and trust?
Lehrman: As long as it’s fact-based, opinion journalism can help in this really complicated world and shine some light on the possibilities. If you have a nice diet that includes news and includes opinion journalism, I think that’s healthy. However, I do see that there are a lot of people frustrated with opinion journalism because we don’t draw the lines clearly enough. I still hear journalists saying, “Well, it’s obvious that this is opinion, because it has a different format,” as if people are really going to notice that on their phones.
Carmichael: In the past, people would actively seek out information. They’d subscribe to a paper that showed up on their doorstep. They’d tune to Channel 5 at 6 p.m. for the local news. Now, much of our information comes to us on platforms where we don’t control what we see and what our friends share.
Lehrman: I think we need to remind the public that they are part of the information system, too. They’re not just victims of information that comes flowing at them, or passive recipients of it. That, in fact, they are a part of creating a healthy information ecosystem. They’re even part of creating really accurate, fair, impartial news. I hope we can accomplish getting people to think about how they’re getting information and evaluating it through that lens. It gets down to thinking about what is your source of news, and what are the values behind that source? If you share something, people are going to trust you, and they may give it more credibility than it deserves.
Carmichael: Simple question: How do we fix all of this?
Lehrman: I think that having more transparency and labeling and more clarity around our own standards and policies and then communicating them is extremely important. That’s what the public told us when we did our research. We also need to get out there and engage with the public more directly, communicating that we have the ethics that we live by. But also listening better.
Carmichael: That seems so straightforward, but of course it’s incredibly complicated.
Lehrman: As people are getting really discouraged, sometimes they will stop reading the news because it just seems like nothing but tragedy is going on. You’re already experiencing that in your life, so why would you want to just keep reading about it and feel worse? We want people to be informed about the tragedies that are happening around us, but we can also use reporting strategies that help people feel more of a sense of empowerment around them.