More on journalism’s value and the tricky business of trust

Serious people debating journalism in the digital age want to think more about trust. Trust in serious journalism is important and essential, but for reasons I’ll try to explain, it’s the wrong focus for efforts to adapt journalism to disruption. The better benchmark is value.

If journalists are to keep telling us what’s actually happening in an information-saturated world, they need, among other things, be trusted as reliable. Trust is a necessary – but not sufficient – condition for journalism to rebuild. Here are a few reasons why worrying about trust is both vital and a distraction:

  • Digital democratises publishing by replacing one-to-many news distribution with many-to-many. Less attention and trust will be placed in large institutions churning out news when people can take news as recommended by people they know.
  • Consumers of news are naturally and rightly wary of news publishers of any size who are in the midst of a business model crisis: editorial values get changed. Objectivity and neutrality are questioned as they have not been for a century. The extreme example: the British newsrooms where market share loss made editors so desperate they began hacking phones and bribing sources on a wide scale.
  • The tough economics of digital publishing have led to “native advertising” which frequently blurs the distinction between editorial and paid promotion. No surprise that users of these sites are growing mistrustful.
  • Trust is only indirectly connected to solving the business model problem. In the print era, Britain read a lot of newspapers per head (regularly in the world top ten). The BBC had high trust levels but papers did not and never did have. (In this brief Storify, Emily Bell of Columbia tries to get this across).
  • Lastly, isn’t the fact that people don’t take everything the news media say at face value as a good thing? Some scepticism is healthy.
  • In free societies, trustworthiness isn’t something that can organised. Outlets which want to be trusted have to compete to earn that reputation. And there will be arguments about how to judge reliability.

I’m in favour of everything which is being bandied about as likely to build trust with digital tools:

  • Disclosure of conflicts of interest;
  • Transparency about editorial standards and the enforcement of those disciplines;
  • “Footnote” links as required, standard and routine;
  • Linkage to related and comparable material (we’re confident that you can compare this to others and find it better);
  • Search engines which filter for original reporting such signs as low numbers of corrections – provided those search companies make their algorithms open and debatable. Allowing Google to become the opaque judge of what makes good journalism isn’t a good idea.
  • Financial encouragement for fact-checkers and spotters of bad journalism.
  • Labelling the difference between advertisments and editorial.

Trust levels can be measured, at least in crude form. I argued the other day that value was a better means to evaluate new developments in journalism and my former colleague Spencer Ball asked: and how do we measure that value?

With difficulty, is the honest answer. But it’s not impossible. A checklist of ways that journalistic value might be measured overlaps with that list of trust-builders above, but isn’t quite the same thing.

  • You can measure not click-and-fly “hits” on a web page, but engagement. How long does someone stay? How often or regularly do they return? How far down do they read?
  • Even if not all the sources of information can be revealed, does it stand the test of time? Have others or events verified it?
  • One measure is money. Do people subscribe and renew subscriptions to keep the churn rate low? The crowd-sourcing of journalism projects has succeded beyond the wildest dreams of its organisers. Money will be paid upfront for some reporting projects.
  • Interactivity: how many people bother to respond and argue?
  • Sharing: how many people pass on piece of news? But that has to be tested against not merely the button-click of sharing, but by whether the sharer or the receiver actually consume the stuff they exchange.
  • Consequences. If a story about objections to a building makes the difference over whether or not a planning inquiry is held, that’s value to at least some members of the community.
  • Circulation/ratings. There’s plenty which gets seen, heard or read by millions which you might argue doesn’t have value. But a large audience is at least a clue to the fact that you’ve sparked someone’s interest somehow.

The problem with lists like the one I’ve compiled above is that there’s a good deal that I think might be valuable about journalism which isn’t captured by those filters. Do we think that simply recording things (the routine outcomes of court cases for example) is in the public interest as well as occasionally being interesting to the public? The value in that is so diffuse and long-term as to be almost beyond measurement.

But for all that, I still think value is the best test.



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