It’s hard to go a month these days without seeing yet another report decrying the lack of trust readers have in everyday journalism.
There is no question that the relationship between journalists and the public is on shaky ground. While it is true that partisan bad actors (including the man who currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.) purposefully sow mistrust in media companies and reporting for their own private benefit, it appears a lot of what is driving a lot of the mistrust of journalism is a basic lack of understanding of what goes into reporting a story.
For instance, 60 percent of all respondents in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted for the Columbia Journalism Review believe reporters are often paid by their sources. Forty-one percent said they were less likely to believe a story if it contained anonymous sources.
“The evidence is there that too many people think that when it comes to anonymous sources, that even journalists themselves don’t know who those people are,” said Joy Mayer, the project director for Trusting News, which works with newsrooms to help demystify trust in journalism. “Just the term ‘anonymous sources’ is not really understood.”
While it might seem like a Sisyphean task to attempt to educate readers on the very basics of news coverage, researchers have uncovered at least one simple and straightforward method that even the smallest newsroom can implement in their reporting.
Two words, 12 letters: Explainer box.
According to a new study from the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Austin, doing something as simple as adding an explainer box offering an overview of your reporting process can immediately improve a reader’s trust of not only your story, but your entire news organization.
The research, done on behalf of Trusting News and completed in February, centered on two stories previously published by two of the organization’s partners: USA Today and the Tennessean, who mocked up an explainer box for each story.
The Tennessean story was about a viral Facebook post that led people to falsely believe a veteran had been declined medical care, while USA Today’s story focused on Amazon’s search to find a location for its second headquarters. The explainer box reporters and editors at USA Today came up with included three main components: Why they’re doing the story, how they reported the story and how reporters took steps to be fair.
Half the participants received a version of one of the stories with an explainer box, while the other half didn’t. Not only did readers who viewed a news story with an explainer box come away with a better perception of the news organization, they rated that newspaper higher in 11 of the 12 attributes related to trust, including transparency, accuracy, credibility, bias and reputation.
“It is relatively easy to put this box together using information from the reporters’ news-gathering process and can improve items that relate to trust,” the authors of the report wrote, noting that “ small steps by news organizations can have an influence on building trust with their audiences even if every approach does not work.”
Several newsrooms are already using versions of an explainer box with their long-form journalism or investigative pieces to great effect.
For her long-form investigative story about the suspicious death of a local teacher, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Stephanie Farr included an explainer box at the end of her story that offered an overview of everyone she spoke to for her piece (and those who did not reply to her requests for comment). She also explained that several sources “agreed to be interviewed if not identified.” (Full disclosure: I work for the Philadelphia Inquirer).
The Inquirer is hardly alone. The Bangor Daily News explained to readers it took about four months to fully confirm a story about a prison guard’s alleged sexual misconduct. The Fresno Bee explained it interviewed nearly 100 people—many using Spanish and Hmong—for a report detailing the misery of tenants of low-income apartments. ProPublica and The Marshall Report outlined how their reporters ending up working together on a report about a serial rapist and a young woman convicted of lying about what turned out to be a real assault.
Other newsrooms have been reluctant to include such details on the individual stories themselves. A few months back, I wrote about New York Times politics editor Patrick Healy, who discusses the details of his desk’s reporting on Twitter. Healy does a great job, and offers a good deal of transparency about the Times’ political reporting, but because he does it on Twitter, it only reaches a fraction of the people who read the actual reporting.
Many news organizations think they’re being transparent about their reporting process because they have a page buried on their website explaining their policies. But as you’d expect, asking readers to seek out this information on their own doesn’t exactly lead to a robust amount of pageviews.
“We’re all about taking advantage of attention where we already have it, rather than asking for additional attention,” Mayer said. “Let’s not wait for people to go to our ethics pages. Let’s not wait for them to ask questions… Let’s be proactive about explaining to people why what we’re doing is credible and therefore worthy of their trust.”
What these explainer boxes amount to is a simple bit of branding. By explaining the process behind reporting out a particular story, you’re doubling down on your reporters as a credible source of information and your organization as a responsible arbiter of facts.
It’s something newsrooms at local television stations have understood for quite a while. According to Bill Day, a vice president at the media research and consulting firm Magid, survey after survey reveals that people think the best investigative journalists work at television news stations. Why? Because these news channels loudly and quite often promote their investigative journalists hitting the street to uncover dirt or protect individuals. It might seem self-serving, but it also establishes trust with their viewers.
“TV journalists are certainly much more adept at marketing themselves, and I say that with admiration,” Mayer said. “Newspapers tend to be more shy… they don’t think they should be trumpeting what they do. To me it only makes sense that if a newsroom thinks they’re giving people what they’re looking for, point out that’s what they’re doing.”
“Desperation breeds responsiveness, or at least it should,” Mayer added.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.