How the Trusting News Project is helping newsrooms connect with their audience by building trust

In just a few years, the Trusting News Project has already helped more than 50 newsrooms develop more trust with readers through its education and training efforts.

And they are primed to do even more now after partnering with the American Press Institute.

We caught up with Joy Mayer, Director, TrustingNews.org to learn more about the project and how newsrooms can get involved.

Can you tell us a little about the history and background of the Trusting News Project?

Trusting News started in 2016 out of a desire to demystify the issue of mistrust in journalism. I wanted to learn about the nature of the problem and figure out ways the industry could be responding. I recruited some newsrooms to help me test out ideas, and it’s grown from there.

What is your role in it and how did you get involved?

I founded Trusting News when I was leaving my 12 years as a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and embarking on a consulting career. What began as a part-time research project has grown. I often tell people that the issue of trust in journalism wasn’t quite as trendy — or sadly as urgent — when I first pitched the project in the fall of 2015. I’d love to work us out of a job, honestly. But for now, our to-do list is plenty long.

What are some of the key things you have learned through your research when it comes to trust with readers?

Addressing the problem of distrust has to begin with understanding what people really think of journalism. How can we change their minds if we don’t know what they’re thinking? It’s too easy for journalists to blow off negative feedback and comments. Instead, we need to spend some time looking for patterns and identifying themes. We need to stop rolling our eyes when people complain of political bias, sensationalized coverage or a lack of fact-checking. Instead, assume that reasonable people really don’t understand how we operate. Why would they, honestly? It’s up to us to fill in the information gaps about how journalism works. How do we decide what crimes to cover? What questions did we set out to answer with our investigation? Do our owners influence our coverage decisions? These answers vary newsroom to newsroom. Stop expecting your own community to automatically have answers, and find a way to tell the story of your journalism.

What are some of the best actionable steps that you have seen newsrooms take around trust?

The questions I just outlined can be addressed pretty simply. Attach a box with a story that explains how your reporting process worked. Add a sentence to a social post that says what basic question you set out to answer with a story. Include in a newsletter what you hope results from a story. Also, find ways to invite questions. Tell your community that you value their trust and want to earn it, then invite questions in a way that works for them (like Facebook Live or Facebook comments). Remember, when you answer questions publicly, you’re answering not just asker but also everyone else who’s following along. Our website will be updated soon with a database of fresh examples, and our Medium publication looks at some specific things our partner newsrooms have tried. 

What’s next for the Trusting News Project?

We just partnered with the American Press Institute, which grows our capacity, so we have huge plans! We’ve launched a free coaching program, so journalists can get one-on-one guidance as they work to demonstrate credibility and earn trust. And we’ve started a newsletter. We have a bunch of training planned. And we’ll be looking for more newsrooms to work with. Learn more and get involved here.