When I told my mother my work focused on improving public trust in the news, she thought the idea was hilarious. “Trust? News?” I was a bit insulted. Her daughter—me, that is—has been a journalist for years. But she had a point.
Journalism has been struggling to stay afloat in an era when people expect information to come both fast and free. Now, competition by principle-free enterprises further undermines its very role and purpose as an engine for democracy.
The digital world has muddied formerly clear divisions between factual news, sales pitches, hoaxes, and hyper-partisan propaganda designed to incite. On social media and in online search, misinformation spreads with lightning speed. Lurid headlines loom far larger than the logos of news brands, which at least offer a clue to the origin of information and the care behind it.
Last fall, barely one third of Americans polled by Gallup expressed at least a fair amount of trust in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.”
To make collective decisions about our communities, our shared resources, and our government, we have to agree on basic facts. Today those facts can take on the shape of a funhouse mirror where we each see a distorted image tailored to our own expectations.
The Trust Project, which is a collaboration of news organizations around the world, aims to sharpen the picture by using technology to encourage accurate, ethically produced news and make it easy to find. Think along the lines of a nutrition label on a package of food, or a lab report that conveys your health status when you go in for a checkup.
Based at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics in Santa Clara, California, the project has brought together more than 70 news organizations to work on a transparency system that would show how a story came to be and who stands behind it. Technology companies, which have become powerful distributors of news, are also contributing their expertise and a strong willingness to apply the results.
Imagine you encountered a piece of text or video in your social media newsfeed or while searching for news on your phone or computer. It would be marked clearly as news, opinion, or sponsored content designed to sell you something. If you clicked on the byline, you’d see the author’s background and other published work. Did that person have local expertise? Experience and knowledge covering the topic? Another click would take you to information about the news site itself. What commitments has it made to ethics, diversity, correcting mistakes? Who owns or funds the site, who is the leadership, when was it created?
For investigative or more controversial stories, you could see citations backing up the information presented and a short description of the reporting involved. If you liked, you could learn details about the site’s track record for reaching across economic background, race, age, gender and other differences to get the full story.
You’d quickly find what you needed to make informed choices about your news. The Trust Indicators would also send machine-readable signals to Facebook, Google, Bing, Twitter and other technology platforms. We’re already working with these four companies, all of which have said they want to use our indicators to prioritize honest, well-reported news over fakery and falsehood.
While some news organizations show bits and pieces of these features, until now they have not been standardized and structured across sites for the public to quickly find or platform machines to read.
The journalists working on this project aren’t attempting to prescribe the perfect news diet for the public. That would be self-serving, pompous, and dull. No, we’re asking people to tell us what they want and need from the news. We have conducted dozens of one-on-one interviews with consumers across the United States and Europe. Our questions: What do you value in news? When do you trust it? When have you had your trust broken?
Pundits complain about a naive public that likes cat videos and bias-confirming memes. Our interviews turned up something different: Thoughtful online readers who genuinely want to be informed about their own communities and the world. Skeptical citizens who work very hard to gather a more complete, nuanced picture of issues and events than they believe news organizations typically provide.
Some members of the public are frustrated with journalism that seems thin, uninformed, biased against their community and replete with argument, anger and violence. They complain about opinion presented exactly like news. Some people are so fed up that they have simply disengaged. They want more humility from journalists, more recognition that in spite of journalists’ best aspirations, we do sometimes get it wrong.
Most of the people we talked to, though, valued the news and the people who produce it. Our interviewees told us that they knew journalists aspire to be objective, but we all have a perspective based on our life experiences. They wanted news organizations to be clear about their funding sources and agenda. They wanted to know more about the reporter and where she got her information.
They wanted to hear from people like themselves and unlike themselves—certainly more than the usual high-powered leaders in business and government. Many talked about more engagement. A news story, we heard, should offer tools like annotation and forms that would allow readers to contest claims, suggest more sources and propose ideas for reporting further. Journalists, people urged, should be more collaborative with the public they aim to serve.
Journalism executives listen eagerly to these insights but don’t always like what they hear. All that transparency may stretch their technology systems and eat up precious time. So far, however, many are still game to try. The Washington Post, Mic, and The Globe and Mail are in the early stages of rolling out our indicators, while many other organizations in the U.S. and Europe are preparing to do so. Technology platforms are mulling the best ways to apply the signals in their own environments. I hope they’ll all recognize the opportunity to become more relevant and responsive. A vibrant, free press that the public can trust is vital to democracy.
This article is part of a collaboration with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.