Best Practices: What we are Learning

(Editor’s note: Newsroom change leader Michele McLellan headed up the News Co/Lab’s reporting on Best Practices. We defined best practices as tools or techniques that improve news and at the same time help people (including journalists themselves) better understand how news works in the digital age. In this, the first of four posts, Michele discusses the role of transparency in advancing news awareness and increasing journalism credibility.)

“Today’s environment has challenged our business in so many ways. Now it will require us to develop a new relationship with the public. That’s all we needed. One more challenge. But it is one more challenge we will have to meet.”  – Martin Baron, Editor, The Washington Post

Challenge, indeed. After two decades of upheaval, that may be the biggest newsroom realization of all: The story, the news, the information itself … is not all that matters. More than ever, journalism’s relationship with its public matters. How an information provider engages with a community matters. So does what journalists reveal about themselves, and whether they try to talk to people about how news works.

Photo of Michele McClellan
Michele McLellan

People themselves also need a new relationship — with media.  Billions now carry the most powerful personal communication devices ever invented. Social media has made us into real-time messengers. We can instantly change the news stream based on what we share — or don’t. If we understand how to spot credible information, we can help give rise to a fact-based civic culture. But in the era of information overload, it is becoming more difficult to tell honest attempts to be truthful from the foulest deliberate lies.

Many people are just plain confused. They say it is becoming harder to stay informed, When it comes to traditional media, public trust has fallen, though local news is trusted more than national, and media is trusted more than social media. One in five Americans are “eager and willing” to improve their online literacy skills.

The News Co/Lab is here to help, in collaborations and experiments with a variety of partners. As part of an early project, we’ve been creating a cookbook with recipes for best practices that journalists, educators and others with a stake in truth are using to  deepen the information savvy of their communities. The practices fall under the broad categories of transparency and engagement. A third category covers education programs that teach citizens to tell fact from fiction.

We’re learning a lot by reporting on the best practices. One thing is absolutely clear: It is critical for news and information providers to be more open, more transparent.  Research shows that news consumers find information more trustworthy when they know something about the source.

New York University professor Jay Rosen says journalists today simply must show their work. “The users of journalism have more control now. Because they have more choices. Because they can compare news accounts. Because the media system is more two-way than it once was. Because they are paying more of the freight. Transparency is not a slogan, or a nice-to-have. It’s a recognition that the world has changed and journalists are in the fight of their lives.”

Post Editor Martin Baron puts transparency at the center of the “new relationship” of trust journalists must seek with news consumers. (See this video at 30:40.)

“We will have to give people greater insight into how we do our work, how we’ve arrived at our own conclusion. Readers will need to know more about our experience and our expertise. We’ll have to publish original documents. We will have to publish full texts of interviews or full recordings. We may have to annotate our stories with sources of information. We’ll have to be more open with readers regarding what we know, what we don’t know, and what we are still trying to find out.”

Post reporter David Fahrenthold provides one prominent example of transparency in reporting. In contrast to investigative reporters who traditionally labor in secret, Fahrenthold worked out in the open, using Twitter to share progress and seek help from readers as he investigated of Donald Trump’s charitable foundation. His revelations in 2016 of the extent to which Trump over the years had exaggerated his charity helped win a Pulitzer Prize.

The Post is also one of about a dozen news outlets that are part of a pilot effort with the Trust Project, a consortium of news organizations and tech platforms, including Google and Facebook, that is based at Santa Clara University in California and headed by journalist Sally Lehrman.

Based on extensive consumer research, the Trust Project enlisted the help of dozens of journalism leaders to develop a list of eight “core indicators” that show that an organization’s journalism is credible. These include publishing mission statements, ethics policies, diversity policies, ownership and funding sources, author and source expertise, original documents and explanations of reporting methodologies for specific stories. Other indicators are journalism that reflects diversity, clear labeling of news and opinion, and creating mechanisms to solicit and act upon community feedback.

The goal of the project is that social and search platforms will be able to identify news sites that meet these “trust” standards and will boost the visibility of their content.

Other publications provide explanations of specific stories or newsroom roles and processes. The national nonprofit ProPublica, for example, publishes detailed explanations of complex statistical analysis that underpins its investigative reporting. The Toronto Star launched a trust initiative that includes a weekly feature that lifts the curtain on how journalists in the newsroom do their jobs, creating an online library to which staff members can refer members of the public whenever they have questions.

Now the challenge for news and information providers is to make this transparency part of their everyday work, to constantly reinforce their standards among the public and to hold themselves accountable to them.

As the distribution of information becomes more atomized and journalism is separated from the organization that produced it, Tom Rosenstiel, says virtually every story, whatever the form, must include this transparency:

Journalists must invent new story forms that reveal the skeleton of their reporting, raise the bar of verification, and show consumers why they should trust them.”

This is the first of four posts. The next one focuses on news and information providers who are listening, and engaging with, their communities.