As of this summer, 27% of Americans had confidence in newspapers, 24% had confidence in television news, and just 14% had confidence in what they read on the Internet. Reuters reported similar numbers internationally, so this crisis in trust isn’t limited to the United States.
Journalism is the bedrock of democracy. Without a free press, we can’t make informed decisions as an electorate. The ability to speak truth to power through access to trustworthy facts, presented in context, is a hallmark of a free society. Conversely, societies where the press is tightly controlled and facts are spun to fit the agenda of a central authority can’t be truly democratic.
Unfortunately, many news consumers believe that’s exactly what’s happening. As NiemanLab recently reported:
Why don’t people trust the news? Concern about bias, spin, and hidden agendas. Two-thirds of people (67%) cited one of these factors as a reason they don’t trust what they read. Unsurprisingly, concerns about political biases were particularly significant in the U.S., where 34% of respondents who distrusted news media cited concerns about political bias as the reason why.
While some outlets certainly do write to a political bias, this characterisation is unfair for many. It’s also important to acknowledge the news is written by real people who all have their own biases and assumptions, even if they work to reduce them in their reporting.
Given all this, and the importance of trustworthy news to democracy, how can that trust be rebuilt?
One answer may lie in software engineering. No, really.
Most software is written opaquely by teams of engineers, who review each other’s code based on seniority, much as an editor might review pieces in a newsroom. From a user perspective, there is very little oversight into how the software is written or what the process going into product development really is.
If you rely on the software, you have to take it on trust (and reputation) that the software has been written competently and is up to the job. You also have to trust it’s safe to use and won’t infect your computer or spy on you without you knowing.
Some software is too valuable to receive that trust blindly. For example, if you use software to encrypt your data in a sensitive environment, responsible information security professionals don’t just assume it works. They also don’t simply put their trust in a brand name — back doors and vulnerabilities are often found in products created by the biggest names.
Instead, professionals require that the source code to the software, and with it the process by which the software was written, is auditable. By making the source code open, anyone can test the software to ensure it is safe and fit for purpose.
Similarly, opening newsrooms has the potential to allow consumers to audit their news and ensure it is fit for purpose. When consumers are invited to inspect a publication’s editorial process and any decisions made leading up to final publication, and that history is truly auditable, accusations of deliberate bias are made much more difficult. Vulnerable sources can still be protected by redacting names (alongside a reason for redaction), but the newsroom itself is exposed to sunlight.
It’s an approach that has begun to be used by newer publications like Publish.org and WikiTribune, but there’s no reason why other publications can’t adopt the strategy. Hearken has already shown the value of openness: Its platform allows newsrooms to listen more deeply to their audiences and co-report stories with them. The resulting public-powered journalism is more engaging, and generates more revenue for newsrooms, precisely because it brings audiences into the process.
In some quarters, there’s substantial resistance to this idea. Why, the thinking goes, should we bring the public into the process?
While it might be tempting to think of this as undermining some long-standing principle, I see this as a matter of trust, too. Audiences want reciprocation. Trust them by giving them more insight into how you work, and they’ll begin to trust you back. Listen to their feedback on your process as well as your content, and you’ll build a real relationship.
Another crucial outcome to showing reporting work is that the public gets to witness first-hand its complexity and value. This level of transparency can help dissolve the dangerous and disorienting feelings that there is just no way to know what information can be trusted, and that simple answers exist to multi-variate problems.
Media exists to serve the public. All of us who work in the industry are here to provide a service. The time where we can rely on our brands and reputations as a source of trust, and declare we know best how to create and deliver reporting, is over. In a time when trustworthy reporting is more important than ever, let’s embrace that, and work together to build a more demonstrably truthful world.