Journalism Trust Initiative codifies trust in media

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Trust is a central tenet of journalism, yet we know there’s a crisis of falling trust in media driven by a combination of news exhaustion, concerted attempts to brand reporting as fake news, and a rise in conspiratorial thinking. Not to mention real failures by media outlets and journalists.

The INMA board this year re-emphasised trust and ways to restore it as one of the critical objectives of the Newsroom Initiative.

We know by now that trust has to be built in at all levels of news-gathering, journalistic training, and how news is presented. We can talk about it, but we have to do it. We also know the basics of trust: transparency, clarity of mission, honesty, fairness, fixing errors, and presenting clear Web sites and products that best represent the supposed values of media brands.

That approach has been codified in the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI), a nearly 5-year-old project run by the journalist protection group Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris.

I spoke with Bertrand Mosssiat, the outreach and development manager of the JTI. He says 850 media organisations are in various stages of measuring themselves against the criteria and 20 have gone through the independent audit to achieve a JTI certification.

“The JTI can be a diagnostic tool. If you meet 100%, congratulations, you’re best in place. If you meet 75%, maybe you can identify areas where you can improve,” he says. “They are very essential criteria, of course, but it’s not an obligation to have everything right. The most frequent area where newsrooms stumble is their code of ethics.”

The JTI is built around a systematic approach to the components that build or are believed to build or be embodied in a trustworthy publishing organisation. Where it differs from other trust-promoting schemes is that it has at its center an ISO (International Standards Organisation) process under which compliance is independently audited. It is built on an original founding code for certification: CWA 17493, created by the JTI founders in 2019.

Criteria for the JTI include a code of ethics, evidence of the ultimate ownership of a publisher, the identities and contacts of executives, and sources of revenue, among many others. It is a voluntar code but has the extra dimension of being able to be independently audited.

It sounds complicated, and it can be. But the principle is simple: to create a measurable set of criteria for what constitutes a media organisation with trust built into its processes and to confirm that with an external independent audit.

That can then allow advertisers, news aggregators, and the big technology platforms to use that standard as a signal of audited trustworthiness — promoting content or aligning advertising with “safe content” or environments.

You can imagine how important that could become with the expected extinction of third-party cookies next year as publishers scramble to present their sites as safe destinations. The JTI is expected to shortly announce its first agreements that combine platforms and major advertisers using its criteria to identify publishers that have passed these tests of trustworthiness.

Bertrand says some fresh funding will allow RSF to accelerate the promotion of the JTI international and to work with major platforms and other forms of trust certification like NewsGuard to expand its reach worldwide from a base developed in Europe. JTI recently had its first U.S. news organisation gain audited certification, Colorado Public Radio. It has a range of other publishers in the United States going through the self-assessment phase.

I was involved a little in the launch of the JTI in 2019 when I was president of the now-defunct Global Editors Network, which, along with WAN-IFRA, supported the creation of the project and took part in the evaluation of the criteria against which publishers would be judged.

At that time many observers — especially in the United States — expressed fears that the JTI represented a sort of creeping regulation of what was and was not journalism or a journalist.

Even though the basis of the JTI is a self-evaluation against agreed objectives, the concept of a final audit and connections to European and international standards groups raised concerns.

“People ask us, ‘Oh, are you regulating journalism? Have you defined what journalism is?’ Our answer is no, because we’re not defining journalism. JTI is an ISO standard that is not for journalism; it is for the news publishing industry,” Bertrand says.

That distinction may be lost on some critics who see the JTI as a threat to the more absolutist approach towards journalism and free speech itself, especially in the United States.

Bertrand has an answer to that: “The news publishing industry is an industry that does a service of delivering content. Within the mix of the content they distribute, there is some content that responds to a journalistic or editorial process. Journalism can be summarised as collecting information, processing it, and distributing it.”

JTI, he says, is a certification for “the publishers who embrace the best practices of the industry.”

The JTI is one of several such initiatives, the best known perhaps being The Trust Project, which grew out of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. It too has a comparable set of eight primary criteria by which it judges evidence that a publisher has the basics in place to be considered trustworthy: code of ethics, sourcing rules, and so on.

The Trust Project has grown rapidly with publishers large and small — from The Economist to The Washington Post, and Sky News UK — meeting the criteria and adopting the “T” symbol.

(For full transparency, I was involved in the early days of The Trust Project too, especially around criteria for sourcing and exposing the origin of information used to build news stories. What I have always liked about The Trust Project is the evidence from its founding surveys of consumers around the world as to what they believed would enhance their trust in news.)

It can only be good that there are alternative paths for publishers to signal their commitment to the basics of trust — from which they can actually walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

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About Peter Bale

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