Russian hackers. Partisan political posts masquerading as news content. Cries of “fake news” and “media bias” from politicians and their supporters who don’t like the coverage they’re receiving.
It seems like these days there’s a war on objective truth, and reporters and the media companies they work for are more often than not finding themselves dead center in the crosshairs. It doesn’t help on social media platforms like Facebook, where a millions of Americans read the news, credible reporting often lives side-by-side with dubiously-sourced drivel and outright false information.
As a result, it can often be a struggle to discern the two, especially for younger readers that didn’t grow up trusting a local newspaper or a strong news brand, and often consume little more than the headline presented on social media. It isn’t just a reader-centric problem; Pew Research Center recently found that 48 percent of the links shared by members of Congress since January 2015 were to partisan outlets.
So, how do media companies convince readers being drowned by a firehose of content that the journalism their newsroom is producing is trustworthy and non-partisan?
That’s part of problem Michelle Jaconi is trying to tackle over at the Washington Post. As the executive producer for the Post’s video division, Jaconi decided one way to confront the issue of trust was to pull back the curtain and launch a new video series aimed at putting the Post’s reporters in the spotlight.
The series, which is hosted by Post on-air reporter Libby Casey, acts as a “how to” of journalism, using reporters from the newsroom to discuss everything from how to file a FOIA request to how to use an anonymous source. The videos, which will initially be published weekly before moving to a couple a month, are posted both on the Washington Post website as well as on a curated playlist on YouTube, where the “how to” genre is particularly popular.
“There’s so much curiosity about what is real journalism, and our goal is to show rather than tell,” Jaconi said. “With the next generation on Instagram and Snapchat, we can really promote transparency and our reporting by adding a visual component like this.”
The first video of the series took partisan attacks against journalism head-on. After Post investigative reporter Beth Reinhard and national enterprise reporter Stephanie McCrummen first reported on several women making allegations against then-Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, their reporting was attacked by Moore’s supporters who criticized the paper for using anonymous sources.
So, Casey spoke with both Reinhard and McCrummen to discuss the nuts and bolts of their reporting on Moore—everything from how they vetted information to how they got people to move from being background sources of information to agreeing to go on the record. Not only does the video offer insight into how the story developed, it humanizes both reporters and their approach to gathering news, with McCrummen admitting at one point, “I like to treat someone the way I would like to be treated.”
It turns out seeing both Reinhard and McCrummen as real people with honest motivations cuts through the false narrative often used to discredit journalism that reporters are biased or have an axe to grind. McCrummen even mentions that she was born in Alabama and was the granddaughter of a southern Baptist preacher, something a reader might not expect to hear from a reporter working in a major metropolitan newspaper.
It’s also refreshing to see the highlight being placed on reporters doing things the right way, instead of letting media errors and bad behavior on the part of a handful of deceitful journalists dominate the headlines.
“I think in an age of visual communication, I really believe in a visual byline,” Jaconi said. “It just adds to our transparency as an organization that you can look our reporters in the eye and listen to specifically what they did.”
The video series actually works on multiple levels for the Post. Not only does it act as a window into its newsroom and help put a public face on reporters often stuck behind a byline, it also works as an educational tool for other journalists out there looking to hone their skills in areas of journalism they might not have had experience.
For the second video in the series, Post investigative reporter Kimbriell Kelly and database editor Steven Rich, both Pulitzer Prize winners, detail how they use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to gather and disseminate information from the government. Rich, sporting a FOIA t-shirt, reveals he filed about 1,500 public records request last year alone, and goes through sending an actual request (for the FBI’s records on actress Carrie Fisher) as the camera rolls.
“I know that they’ll be a lot of journalists and people at home that will learn from that episode on how to do something that they might not even know it’s in their right to do,” Jaconi said.
Of course, the Post’s staffing is the envy of most news organizations. How do smaller media companies with a fraction of the Post’s resources educate their readers about who they are, what they do, and establish the trust that has eroded away over time thanks to attacks against the media?
“I think any way you can offer a window into your newsroom and put a human face on a subject or a reporter, I think it helps so much,” Jaconi said.
The good news for smaller newsrooms is social media platforms are designed for this very thing. Whether it’s a quick Facebook Live video from within the newsroom or just a short video shared on Instagram or Snapchat, the opportunities are there for you to get your reporters out from behind their desk and allow them to connect directly with your readers to help create a more impactful relationship.
Jaconi’s suggestion for smaller outlets is even simpler. If your newsroom is working on a project that is unique and cool, or if somebody you work with is doing something better than anyone you’ve ever worked with, you should be asking yourself if there is any way you can show that to your audience.
“The way (Post investigative reporter) Scott Higham worked sources is so much fun,” Jaconi said. “Not everybody can sit next to Scott, but that doesn’t mean I can’t reveal a little bit of his excellence in a fun way that readers might respond to.”
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 [email protected]