El Comercio tackles false news with focus on trust

By Mauricio Romero

Bogota, Colombia


The collateral damage to journalism, magnified during the coronavirus pandemic, is “the toxic combination between fake news and social media,” according to Jaime Bedoya, head of qualified content at El Comercio. This alliance of forces “legitimised” the ability to spread lies and half-truths anonymously and irresponsibly.

Part of the fault of this phenomenon is on the media outlets themselves for having — for some time — been too naive about the innocuousness of social media: We considered them minor allies; they were frenemies, Bedoya lamented during a recent INMA Webinar.

The relationship between press and audience was leveled with the rise of social media, which gave citizens an important voice through easy access to tools such as cell phones with cameras and an Internet connection. In addition, this citizen reporting is not subject to any regulation or ethical journalism standards, so it is “free and out of control,” Bedoya said.

The Trust Project attacks this crisis of trust

The Trust Project aims to regain trust for media from its roots. This is achieved through good journalism practices, something reporters master and know how to apply to make their work noble and honest.

After joining The Trust Project, El Comercio helped educate readers about how to identify trustworthy news.
After joining The Trust Project, El Comercio helped educate readers about how to identify trustworthy news.

However, in Bedoyas view, such practices have been neglected, have been applied “on autopilot,” or have not been properly communicated. The news media industry has taken for granted that audiences are knowledgeable about the work behind news content, he said.

Good journalism practices are based on the qualitative differential with information that runs uncontrolled or lawless on social media — and that is where journalism beats social media in terms of truthfulness.

The Trust Project came to Latin America after the editorial coordinator of Grupo de Diarios de América (GDA) scheduled a bi-annual meeting in which she invited Sally Lehrman, a journalist and academic at The University of Santa Clara, California, in the United States. Lehrman outlined The Trust Project as a way to regain audience confidence in media and get such audience to identify reliable from unreliable news.

“People ended up reading news on Facebook believing that this was journalism,” Bedoya said. This was one aspect of the current media situation that led Lehrman to start the project. She has warned Facebook and Google executives: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” a phrase so blunt that such companies pledged to finance the project.

The first thing was to spot, through global surveys, media weaknesses by which audiences were losing credibility in the press. Through such surveys, eight trust indicators that should be taken into account for good journalistic practice were collected.

COVID-19 slowed down the project momentum

After Argentina’s La Nación and Peru’s El Comercio began to work on the project, the pandemic hit. That meant a decrease in advertising sales, circulation figures, and human resources from print media. But, in turn, digital audiences soared due to the audiences need for reliable information.

Once the trust indicators were compiled, Google and Facebook agreed to promote the visibility of content that met those parameters on their platforms by establishing a Trust Project quality seal.

A manual of style for each media outlet

Bedoya shared some of the practices adapted by El Comercio  practices that could well be applied to any media outlet.

He spoke about keeping a manual of style, either print or digital, in which many of the parameters of ethics and best practices are visible to the audience. Others, in the form of source code, should be visible to Internet search engine robots and platforms, such as Facebook, to improve reach among audiences.

Additionally, audiences should have access to services such as who to contact about a correction. In addition, publications should write a footnote in case corrections are made to an article, as well as provide profiles of each member of the editorial team to let the audience know who writes the content for them.

A recent INMA report, How News Brands Are Rebuilding Trust by Sally Lehrman, founder of The Trust Project, is available here.

About Mauricio Romero

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