Diverse sourcing, awareness of terminology are among story features that build trust

By Katalina Deaven

Center for Media Engagement

Austin, Texas, USA


News distrust is a widespread and difficult problem to tackle, but there are steps newsrooms can take to build trust with their local communities. Gathered through numerous studies, the Center for Media Engagement has identified five actions newsrooms can take to improve trust.

1. Explain your reporting process.

Our research suggests one way to build trust is to help audiences understand why a story is being done and why certain story choices are being made. This can be addressed within the story narrative by adding an introduction with an explanation. It’s important to make sure, however, that explanatory elements provide value and context and don’t just add length to the story.

Another approach is to utilise a box laying out how and why a news organisation chose to do a story. The box can include information like where reporters gathered information and how they took steps to be fair. Reporters should already have the information from the news-gathering process, making it a fast and easy addition to a story. In testing this approach, however, we found the information needs to be highly visible to have an effect.

2. Use a variety of sources.

In several of our studies, especially those where we spoke with members of communities that are often underrepresented in news stories, source diversity was an important factor in building trust. Rather than relying on the same few community members to provide soundbites, journalists should develop multiple sources in the area. Specifically, they should connect with sources who have first-hand knowledge of the issue.

Reporters can build trust by using a variety of sources for their articles.
Reporters can build trust by using a variety of sources for their articles.

It’s also helpful to explain why certain voices were chosen and others were left out. News audiences don’t have an inside look at your reporting process and may question decisions to include or exclude specific voices. This is an issue that can be perceived as imbalanced reporting.

One study found it may be helpful to guard against perceived bias by providing a statement of independence that makes it clear you have no relationship with story sources.

3. Provide a complete story.

When we asked people what they want from news stories, a common theme was a desire for reporters to fully explore all aspects of the story. This might include explaining background information, providing context beyond the facts of the latest update, and taking an investigative approach whenever possible.

People also wanted reporters to explain terminology. This applies to journalistic terms and procedures as well as to terms related to the industries discussed in a story.

Additionally, consider rounding out stories by adding other trust-boosting items like story labels and footnotes.

4. Be aware of your phrasing.

People in underserved communities often feel their communities aren’t covered fairly. To address this issue, journalists should take steps to ensure certain communities aren’t covered differently than others. People we spoke with suggested journalists should use neutral language — avoiding descriptions that might be subjective or evoke certain emotions — while covering contentious situations.

Our research has also shown the labels journalists use to describe communities, especially those that are often marginalised, have the power to shape opinions. We found that using person-centered language can foster trust and help news organisations better connect with stigmatised groups.

5. Think beyond the story.

Building trust extends beyond the story. A simple way to keep people engaged is to encourage audience participation or provide additional resources at the conclusion of the story. Reporters can also help build connections with readers by providing bios with a personal photo and personal details — but it’s important to combine bios with additional strategies to actually increase trust.

The more details the better, as far as trust is concerned. That's why bios for reporters are helpful to build trust.
The more details the better, as far as trust is concerned. That's why bios for reporters are helpful to build trust.

Outside of the newsroom, journalists should get to know their communities and develop relationships with community members and organisations. This is especially important in building trust with underserved communities. By developing deeper relationships within the community, journalists become more aware of potential stories, including those lifting up residents.

Finally, mistakes happen, but our research indicates that owning up to them and fixing them promptly is a way to build trust.

About Katalina Deaven

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