The emergence of “fake news” as a factor in the outcome of November’s presidential election was rightly framed as a threat to our democratic process. If we wholesale can’t agree on what is fact and what is fiction, basic political discourse is impossible.
The trend also should have sent shockwaves across the journalism business, with national news outlets most immediately threatened, but local news perhaps not that far behind.
If no one can tell the difference between legitimate news articles, content that is bent to achieve a partisan or ideological goal, and outright made-up lies masquerading as news, the already shaky journalism business model is dead.
Some of the same platforms threatening publishers’ economic viability have enabled the success of fake news propagandists. False news stories gained traction on Facebook, boosted by the platform’s algorithms and even making its “trending news” section curated at the time by human editors. And top search results about the Holocaust on Google in the fall returned links to Holocaust-denying anti-Semitic websites.
In theory, local news organizations are more insulated from this trend. You can make up something about the local high school, but readers’ kids go there or they can drive by the place and see for themselves it’s not true.
It’s easier to believe that Hillary Clinton did x, y or z because she is so far away and so far removed from a reader’s personal experience. Because there are so many national news (and propaganda) sites talking about figures such as Clinton and Donald Trump, it’s hard for the average person to know whether the site that came up in search or across their social media feed can be trusted.
The average reader is far more likely to be skeptical of an unknown or dubious website or social media feed reporting a local news story because they’re more likely to be familiar with the established local media landscape.
Yet the average local newsroom dealt with distrust and accusations of bias long before the explosion of “fake news,” and the phenomenon threatens to exacerbate the problem. This is mostly about partisanship and the polarizing approach of Fox News over the past 10 years. If you carry the Associated Press, and run headlines about national politics that question the ethics or policies of Trump, there’s a big segment of your audience that views you as a liberal propaganda machine. That’s regardless of the truth or fairness of those stories, and the distrust spills over to your local reporting as well.
News outlets might never convince diehard ideologues who want to read only the things that confirm their worldview. But for a big swath of consumers in the middle, we can promote news literacy and build trust through an aggressive push for more transparency in our reporting.
Writing for Poynter recently, Melody Kramer suggested that bylines go far beyond the name of a news article’s author, linking to other pieces they’ve written and providing a bio and background information about where the person is coming from. In Patch’s heyday, the editors of its local news sites disclosed their community involvement and even their political party registration.
But what if that “where we’re coming from” approach was applied to each piece of journalism we produce?
Start with a great corrections policy, which can do more than anything else to build reader trust. Include an invitation to readers to fact check your work, and a commitment to interact with those who point out errors in story comments, via social media, phone or email. A good corrections policy should include the principle of noting mistakes that were made and corrected instead of just quietly editing them out of the story without acknowledging the error.
NewsDiffs.org is a website that automatically tracks changes that are made to stories at major news websites, including the New York Times and CNN.com, after an article is first published. Why don’t news organizations set up this kind of automated log for their own sites and provide a place alongside or below each article where editors can comment on why particular changes were made, if necessary?
What if every article included, template-style, a section on “how we reported this story,” explaining briefly how you found out about it (i.e., press release, government meeting agenda, driving by and noticing something, following up on an old topic), and “what/who our sources were” (with links to source documents, and explanation if using anonymous sources why you chose to and what precautions you took to ensure accuracy)?
How about a “how we know this” section in every article?
And to help educate readers about the need to support your journalism financially, a brief explanation of “time and resources” that it took to report the story, including the hours spent by reporters, editors and photographers, and maybe even an estimated direct cost of the story?
If nothing else, including this kind of information in your stories would immediately differentiate you from outlets that are doing little to no original reporting because they often can’t answer the question “How do we know this?” or “Who are our sources?” because it’s just ripped from another news outlet without independent verification.
This kind of transparency would not only build trust with your own readers, but teach them how to be discerning about other news they consume.
Matt DeRienzo is executive director of LION Publishers, an organization that supports local independent online news publishers from across the country. He is a longtime former newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and corporate director of news.