5 ways journalists can regain trust from readers

April 11, 2018
Image via Unsplash.

Journalists overestimate how much Americans know and care about journalism. The general public doesn’t care as much about press freedom and the First Amendment as we hope. They don’t know as much about the basic principles of journalism as we assume. And they sure as hell don’t trust journalism as much as we would like.

Recent polls show that one in three Americans “cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment,” that more than a third of Republicans think press freedom “does more harm than good,” that less than half of Republicans think press freedom is important to maintaining a strong democracy, and that Americans’ trust in media has reached a “new low.” Just last week, Monmouth University released poll data reporting “More than 3 in 4 Americans believe that traditional major TV and newspaper media outlets report ‘fake news.’” These are scary numbers.

And yet it seems that we, as an industry, aren’t doing that much to address them. Ombudsman positions and public editors are a dying breed,” according to a 2015 Politico report. And when it comes to audience understanding, journalists assume that readers bring an enormous amount of background information to every article. Nearly all major news organizations leave the work of defining journalism, itself, to relatively little-known organizations like the American Press Institute or England’s Ethical Journalism Network. (The New York Times has more than 41 million Twitter followers; the API and EJN, combined, have less than 16,000.) When major news outlets do publish valuable explanatory content, like BuzzFeed’s Standards and Ethics Guide or The New York Times’s “The Op-Ed Pages, Explained,” they tend let it disappear into archives like any other piece of content.

Meanwhile, articles built on anonymous sourcing offer little explanation of the reasoning or policy behind the practice. Sponsored content is marked “sponsored” with little or no further explanation of what that actually means. (What percentage of readers do you think can offer a cogent definition of “native advertising”?) Opinion pages publish editorials, columns, and op-eds without explaining what distinguishes all opinion content from non-opinion news, much less what separates these seemingly intertwined categories from one another. When you’re a journalist or editor decades removed from a Journalism 101 class, it’s easy to forget how much basic knowledge you carry that readers don’t share.

We continue to do this at our own risk. One of the many lessons of the Trump era is that press freedom and audience trust aren’t limitless natural resources. They will run out someday unless they are preserved and cultivated. And as overworked and stressed and underpaid and bombarded-with-vitriol as all journalists are, a large part of this responsibility falls on us. Here are some ideas on how to build that understanding. Most of them don’t cost much.

  1. Hire more public editors. Any news organization that can afford to hire a public editor or ombudsman should do so immediately. Whether or not you believe the crisis of faith in journalism is our fault (as opposed to, say, stoked by a wildly uninformed commander in chief), we need to at least acknowledge the lack of public trust and implement some common-sense solutions to address it. This starts with hiring as many people as possible with the expressed mission of building and preserving audience trust.News executives ought to ask themselves not, “Should we have a public editor?” but, “Why don’t we have an ombudsman or public editor?” The reason last June’s shuttering of the public editor position by the Times felt like such a gut punch was because it was the only one quite like it in the industry. Why aren’t there similar positions at CNN? CBS? The Wall Street Journal? BuzzFeed? Vice? Vanity Fair?


When you’re a journalist or editor decades removed from a Journalism 101 class, it’s easy to forget how much basic knowledge you carry that readers don’t share.

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  1. Make public editing more of a team effort. Journalists should also individually ask themselves what they’re doing about the trust-in-journalism crisis. The vital work of trust-building work can’t just be done on the management and ombudsman level. I’ve found my own modest ways of pushing back against misunderstanding and distrust, like tweeting quotes from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s Elements of Journalism, visiting schools and youth groups as often as I can to talk about journalism, and reminding media-embittered non-journalists that when they’re angry about the news, there are built-in mechanisms for accountability and fixing errors. (“Send a Letter to the Editor! Politely email a journalist to point out inaccuracies!”)Am I making a difference? I don’t know. But I’m doing something.


  1. Don’t assume everyone knows what journalism is. It’s rare to see news organizations address basic questions like, “What is journalism?” and, “Why does it matter?” Maybe they’re afraid of insulting their readers’ intelligence, maybe they think it’s repetitive, or maybe they think that work should be done by school teachers. Whatever the reason, under Donald Trump, there is no longer any excuse for not educating readers about what journalism is and why it matters.

    This starts with news organizations of all kinds, and journalism schools, creating prominently displayed pages on their websites to address these questions. Thankfully, there are plenty of excellent materials available to make this easy: the API’s invaluable
    “What Is Journalism” database, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, EJN videos like “The 5 Core Values of Journalism.” And well-heeled organizations can put their own spin on it. The Washington Post’s page could include some of Marty Baron’s speeches, Margaret Sullivan’s columns, or Paul Farhi’s excellent piece, “Dear readers: Please stop calling us ‘the media.’ There is no such thing.” The Dallas Morning News could have a permanent place on its homepage for articles discussing the legendary “BUILD THE NEWS UPON THE ROCK OF TRUTH AND RIGHTEOUSNESS” message that was inscribed in stone on the facade of the paper’s former headquarters.Whatever form it takes, the idea is simple: Make explanatory content about journalism a permanent and prominent feature of news reporting.


  1. Don’t assume people understand the process of journalism, either. Every anonymously sourced article should include link to a page that explains policies on anonymous sourcing. Any piece marked “Opinion” should link to a page explaining the exact difference between opinion pieces and news. Again, this stuff may be obvious to working journalists, but it’s far less clear to non-journos.I’m happy to report that there are signs of this kind of work already underway. After veteran reporter and editor Alan Rosenberg was named executive editor of The Providence Journal, he launched a series of columns that, among other things, takes readers inside the decision-making and news-producing process. Across the country, the Los Angeles Times goes beyond merely introducing the members of its editorial board; it hosts an exemplary page explaining what an editorial is and how the editorial-writing process works. And, late last year, The Washington Post launched a series of videos called “How To Be A Journalist” explaining subjects like whistleblowing and FOIA requests. Let’s keep heading in this direction.


  1. Embrace the idea that we’re all teachers and ambassadors—and get aggressive with it. The New York Times has a tradition of publishing the Declaration of Independence every Fourth of July; why not print the First Amendment in the paper every single day? Why not have small- and mid-sized papers host regular community forums with their executive editors to field questions and explain what they do? Why don’t more journalists make a vow to visit schools—elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges—to put a human face on our much-maligned profession? Teaching people about journalism should become as vital a part of our process as fact-checking.One way to start this work is to make a list, today, of all of the fundamental information you’ve absorbed over the years, and think of ways to convey it. Don’t assume your audience knows any of it. Don’t assume the problems of misunderstanding and distrust of journalism will fix themselves. And don’t assume somebody else is working on them. President Trump certainly isn’t.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. He sued the Drug Enforcement Administration under the FOIA, with help from the Rhode Island ACLU and two pro-bono attorneys, Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell. Follow him on Twitter: @phileil.