Helping people see the workings of news: But how?

by | Jan 14, 2019 | Blog

This blog post is the fourth of a follow-up series on the News Co/Lab’s community news awareness surveys.

Should newsrooms help people understand how news works? Yes, said 75 percent of the journalists we surveyed with the Center for Media Engagement.

Seems right to me. News-savvy people are able to get the news they need to run their communities and their lives. In the same way that the nutritiously enlightened are more likely to favor (and buy) good food, the news savvy are more likely to seek out and consume quality journalism.

But what do we mean when we say “help people understand how news works”? And how can journalists, always busy, work that into their routines?

The surveyed journalists thought these were the most important things to do:

  • Explain controversial decisions made during reporting (74 percent);
  • Offer more information on sources or evidence cited in stories (64 percent);
  • Reveal more about their news organization and its policies (62 percent).

A good start. But people want more.

Trust Project research shows they want journalists to explain how stories were done, why they were chosen and offer more about their own background and experience.

So we will likely see more explainer boxes, author pages and the like; probably much more than a few years ago, which is good.

But there’s still more.

People want to be able to suggest stories, participate in stories, even provide content themselves. The only way to know exactly what they want is to ask them, to listen.
This is not exactly a new idea.

“Market demand is clearly the most important force shaping society today,” says The Elements of Journalism. To do that, the influential book says, journalism needs to be “a transparent enterprise that creates its own demand by inviting citizens into the process, reconnecting journalist and citizens in a conversation… .”

Let’s take a minute and look at news fluency from a consumer’s point of view. To be news savvy, you need to be able to 1) find news and information, 2) understand it, 3) act on it and even 4) create it.

On the other hand, if an American can’t navigate cyberspace well, doesn’t know good journalism from bad (or real from fake), doesn’t believe he or she has rights and responsibilities as a person who can share as well as create news — well, that American can easily do more harm than good in this new digital age of communication.

So helping communities better understand how news works is a fine idea. But if we really hope to do that, journalists will find that explaining themselves is just the beginning. We need to engage people to help them become news savvy in all respects. More user-generated content. More curation of other information sources. Regular meetings, open houses. Engagement partners such as Hearken, GroundSource and Spaceship Media.

There’s a lot still to do before journalists and communities treat each other as partners in news.

The journalists surveyed by the News Co/Lab rated themselves above average in helping people find and understand credible information. But they rated themselves below average on helping people smartly share online news and information and on helping people create their own. (Libraries can help with that, by the way.)

The communities we surveyed consistently gave journalists lower marks than the newsrooms gave themselves — not just on being open, or on being engaged, but on just about everything, including the bedrock of accuracy, fairness and truthfulness.

There was a big gap in how community members see their main local newsrooms and how journalists see them.

That gap can close. When a community learns more about news, it thinks better of quality news outlets. But the gap can also close another way, because when journalists learn more about the communities they serve, they rate their performance with greater humility.

It’s common knowledge by now that the digital revolution has turned journalism upside down and inside out. It may be, though, that the best change of all will be journalism’s new relationship with the people formerly known as the audience. Once, they mostly watched. Now, they can participate. And we certainly can use the help.

Read other posts about our survey research here: