Why you should care
Because readers need to believe.
If the past couple of years are any indication, the media in the United States, and far beyond, is facing a crisis. Now a household term, “fake news” has empowered populists and other dubious forces, while public trust in traditional news outlets has steadily eroded. Half-truths and hostility seem to have overtaken the political conversation.
Part of the problem, newsroom leaders believe, is that journalists haven’t explained themselves well enough. Social media bombards consumers with all matter of content, leaving them ill-equipped to identify quality sources. “For far too long, we have sat there and said, ‘Let the story speak for itself,’” David Walmsley, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s leading newspaper, tells OZY. “Then we leave this vacuum, and it’s whoever speaks loudest gets heard.”
Stepping into that vacuum is veteran journalist and media expert Sally Lehrman. As the director of the Trust Project, a pro-transparency initiative launched late last year, she could be one of the industry’s emerging saviors.
There are steps that news organizations could take … to gain, or regain, some trust that they may have lost.
Alex Curry, Center for Media Engagement
With institutional backing from Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and with help from leaders at more than 75 news organizations including The Economist and The Washington Post, the 58-year-old science writer has led the charge in crafting a set of transparency standards for outlets to implement. Based on input from dozens of American and European news consumers with various backgrounds and reading habits, Lehrman’s team developed eight categories of content verification, or “Trust Indicators,” organizations should meet for published work. They include: clearly distinguishing the type of work (for instance, analysis versus opinion), providing the author’s biography and specifying their area of expertise and identifying the methods of reporting (how reporters obtained their information, and why). Dozens of outlets have committed to upholding these standards so far, part of a multi-phase rollout, and have featured the “Trust Mark” on their sites. Meanwhile, tech giants Google, Facebook, Twitter and Bing are mulling ways to present Trust Indicators to consumers.
True to its name, the project aims to win back popular trust in news outlets, which media researcher Alex Curry, of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, says has steadily waned over the past several decades. For her part, Lehrman realizes it’s an uphill battle. “It’s not about convincing people to trust you,” she says. “It’s about earning their trust.”
Officially, the Trust Project has been two years in the making, but it’s the culmination of many more years of professional self-reflection for the Bay Area native, combined with her passion for the business of keeping people well informed.
Educated at the University of California, Berkeley, Lehrman is a lifelong journalist — starting at her college paper, she moved from local magazines to The San Francisco Examiner and enjoyed a successful freelance career before heading the Trust Project. She’s received many awards for her science reporting, including a Peabody in 2002. Lehrman says her early interest in science sparked a deep appreciation of accountability and public transparency, pointing to the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, when geneticists debated the potential dangers of biomedical research in an attempt to raise public awareness, as particularly inspirational.
“As a society,” she says, “there are many enormous decisions that we have to make, and there are many very small decisions we have to make.” Key to making them well, she adds, “is information that we can rely on to be accurate, that we can use to have debates and discussions about the next steps.”
Thoughtful and composed, Lehrman lacks the cynicism one might expect from a print journalist who came up in the ranks during the heyday of investigative reporting only to face today’s daunting state of affairs. As we chat inside Stanford University’s ornate Alumni Center — she’d been presenting to the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy — she searches carefully for words, her measured tone reminiscent of a therapist dissecting a patient’s thinking. Her disposition also extends to a keen self-awareness and humility about her profession: “We know we mess up,” she says, “and we’re always seeking to correct that, and always seeking to do better.”
Together, they’re traits that make her the perfect candidate to lead the Trust Project, says Walmsley, the Globe and Mail editor. “She has created rigor, which is driven by her academic expertise as well as her own journalism.” Lehrman has imparted to her colleagues in the project — some of the industry’s most prominent players — a formalized approach to studying the problem, while also ensuring “an honest discussion and some degree of venting about the challenges we have,” Walmsley adds.
Yet despite Lehrman’s qualifications and intent, a key question remains: In the age of quick-fix information, do casual readers care enough to dig into where their news comes from? An independent study carried out by the Center for Media Engagement suggests there’s some evidence that they do. Of those readers exposed to stories published using the Trust Project’s indicators, for instance, one-third expressed an increased willingness to pay for journalism. “The thing that our study shows,” says researcher Curry, “is that there are steps that news organizations could take that seem to show that there’s a way for them to gain, or regain, some trust that they may have lost — or that they haven’t earned yet.”
Another question is whether the Trust Project can reach the crowd — devotees of, say, Fox News or RT — that’s often most critical of the media. Lehrman acknowledges the project’s potential limitations, and agrees it won’t work on everyone. At the end of the day, the trust indicators are like “nutrition labels,” she says: “Not everyone will look, but it creates and makes available a set of standards.”
Either way, Lehrman remains steadfast in her belief that greater transparency, however difficult it might be to achieve, is always the better bet. “The desire to know is out there,” she says. “This is how journalism can meet the need.”