Will Trust Indicators Boost Quality Journalism?

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The free-flow of online information places a significant burden on digital audiences. In contrast to the information scarcity of the mass media era, audiences now process vast amounts of information every day and this information is drawn from a startling range of sources.  Moreover, social media collapses many of the traditional distinctions – between professional and amateur, public and private, fact and opinion, news and entertainment – which were previously used to navigate content.

The loosening of old distinctions is not necessarily negative, but it does mean that audiences must work harder to evaluate content on an ongoing basis. This is a challenge because  people generally lack the necessary media knowledge and literacy skills to distinguish between credible and untrustworthy content.

In this context, the Trust Project launched on Thursday is a welcome aid for audiences. Led by Santa Clara University, the Trust Project brought together a team of media representatives to devise a set of standardised trust indicators for journalism. These indicators will help audiences evaluate content by providing information about authors and their expertise as well as company information such as ownership and editorial policies.

Many leading news organisations are participating – including The Washington Post, The Economist, Trinity Mirror, The German Press Agency, and La Repubblica – as well as digital platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

The trust indicators are integrated into Schema.org, a shared mark-up vocabulary used by several digital platforms and websites. This will facilitate the use of common tags across news organisations, thereby creating an industry standard for classifying news content.

The Trust Indicators

  • Best Practices: What Are Your Standards? Who funds the news outlet? What is the outlet’s mission? Plus commitments to ethics, diverse voices, accuracy, making corrections and other standards.
  • Author Expertise: Who Reported This? Details about the journalist who wrote the story, including expertise and other stories they have worked on.
  • Type of Work: What Is This? Labels to distinguish opinion, analysis and advertiser (or sponsored) content from news reports.
  • Citations and References: For investigative or in-depth stories, greater access to the sources behind the facts and assertions.
  • Methods: Also for in-depth stories, information about why reporters chose to pursue a story and how they went about the process.
  • Locally Sourced? Lets people know when the story has local origin or expertise.
  • Diverse Voices: A newsroom’s efforts to bring in diverse perspectives.
  • Actionable Feedback: A newsroom’s efforts to engage the public’s help in setting coverage priorities, contributing to the reporting process, ensuring accuracy and other areas.

Helping citizens make informed judgements about the media they consume is an important, if partial, correction to the problems of information-overload and online misinformation. The “digital wildfires” (Howell 2013) of online misinformation undoubtedly contribute to the undermining of public trust in news media while also eroding the reputation, economic viability, and democratic value of the news media industry.

Psychological research indicates that people often rely on cognitive heuristics, rather than analytical reasoning, when evaluating online information (Metzger, Flanagin and Medders 2010). As such, the trust indicators offer a mental short-cut for assessing content. The question is whether this is enough to address the problem of trust? For those who already subscribe to the professional standards of quality content production, the trust indicators are likely to be a valuable aid for fast information evaluation. However, those who subscribe to the rhetoric of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ are less likely to embrace the trust indicators as standards of quality.

Moreover, it will be interesting to see how concepts of  ‘expert’ versus ‘local’ sources and ‘diverse voices’ are put into practice and what kind of push-back will emerge when these concepts are applied to contentious stories.

Standardised trust indicators are a long overdue step in the right direction, but there is much work yet to done on addressing the problem of trust.

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