Journalists, To Survive, You Need to Understand Trust

A lot of people are so used to just seeing the outcome of work. They never see the side of the work you go through to produce the outcome.Michael Jackson


Let me begin this essay by stating, emphatically, that I am not a journalist. I’m just some blogger who likes reading good journalism. I’m a citizen who believes in the necessity of a free, independent press. I’m a guy who can get down with facts.

But I am also part of the problem.

Because…who am I? Just a guy with an Internet connection, who can write anything I want. And if I attract enough eyes, I can get a large group of people to believe those things.

In the past, I wouldn’t matter. Absent proper training, some adherence to fact based reality, and the right connections, I would never get published. Because there used to be a symbiotic relationship between success and society. Readers trusted brand names like the “New York Times” and “The Wall Street Journal.” What they published was taken at face value. And so they were incentivized to publish legitimate journalism and hire the best writers.

But disdain for intellectualism and increasing partisanship has eroded a desire for truth. The economics of digital publishing have kickstarted a race to the bottom where headlines and clicks, not useful information, drive major publishing decisions. And, to make matters worse, this sea change coincides with the rise of alt-right populism that’s openly hostile to the press.

To the average reader, the spin now matters more than the truth. And this is a war the press cannot win.


In the United States, this hostility toward and distrust of the media is not new. But it has become increasingly aggressive…and effective.

“Since 1970 it has grown from questioning the motives of people covering a Republican president in the speeches of Spiro Agnew, to countering liberal spin with the personalities at Fox News, to mistrusting all of the mainstream (or ‘drive-by’) media with Rush Limbaugh, and now to a place beyond that. Sean Hannity — who is probably closer to Trump than any other media figure — recently said on air: ‘Until members of the media come clean about colluding with the Clinton campaign and admit that they knowingly broke every ethical standard they are supposed to uphold, they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people.'”Jay Rosen

via Gallup

Part of the continued declining trust (not captured by this Gallup poll, taken in September 2016) is directly related to the media’s coverage of the U.S. Presidential Election — their blind faith in Hillary Clinton, which was not supported by the data. With Donald Trump’s “surprise” victory, the crisis has become near-terminal. The media has no leg to stand on.


In a thorough, post-election retrospective, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, underscores the data community’s shortcomings in covering the 2016 election. But he also calls out the traditional media’s failure to self-reflect, which has not helped in regaining lost trust. He argues that, instead of focusing on the failures of the past year, they’ve simply flipped positions to a new, accepted “groupthink” without stating why they had to flip positions in the first place.

For example, before the election they teased Trump for campaigning in solidly-blue Wyoming; after the election they chastised Clinton for not campaigning there, saying it was as an obvious mistake. In the middle, there were few moments where publications admitted “we blew it.” Instead, they raced to blame polls (which were actually more accurate in 2016 than 2012, when Obama won by larger margins than predicted).

This is an uncomfortable story for the mainstream American press. It mostly contradicts the way they covered the election while it was underway (when demographics were often assumed to provide Clinton with an Electoral College advantage, for instance). It puts a fair amount of emphasis on news events such as the Comey letter, which leads to questions about how those stories were covered. It’s much easier to blame the polls for the failure to foresee the outcome, or the Clinton campaign for blowing a sure thing.Nate Silver

With their firm conviction in Clinton’s victory before the election and their lack of accountability following, it’s no surprise trust continues to decline.

Now, the press is trying to come back from behind. And to win, journalists need to learn the lesson no-name bloggers like me have had to learn over the past several years — you build trust and audience by “showing your work.”


That phrase — show your work — comes from artist/writer Austin Kleon’s popular book of the same title. In it, he says:

To many artists, particularly those who grew up in the pre-digital era, this kind of openness and the potential vulnerability that goes along with sharing one’s process is a terrifying idea…But human beings are interested in other human beings and what other human beings do…Audiences not only want to stumble across great work, but they, too, long to be creative and part of the creative process.

This is equally true of journalism. Reporting the facts isn’t enough. Sharing how you came upon those facts and reached your conclusion may be the only way to convince anyone of anything.

In the follow up article, Rosen champions the work of the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, for this very reason.

Learn from Fahrenthold! Nothing I have said so far addresses the hardest problem in journalism right now: recovering trust while doing good work. But David Fahrenthold, the Washington Post reporter who uncovered the fiction of Donald Trump’s philanthropic giving, is single-handedly showing the way. It’s not just the great stories he’s digging up, or the way they hold power to account. It’s also the social turn his investigation took, and the lesson in transparency that he’s teaching the press.

I highly encourage you to read his investigative piece on the Trump Foundation. It doesn’t read like other political reporting. In part, that’s because it’s an investigative piece not a “just the facts” report. But it’s unique because Fahrenthold conducted his research and catalogued his findings via Twitter, and the piece is written in such a way that he takes you along for the ride. This style makes it harder for someone to shout “fake news” — because you, the reader, are part of the discovery. In effect, he shows his work, and you’re left with little choice but to believe him.

Journalists have to create trust, not assume it, and that starts with showing how they arrived at their conclusions. “Unnamed sources” and “insider info” don’t count anymore. It’s too easy to assume those sources are fabricated to suit the spin of the publication. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the world we live in.

Bloggers have been struggling with the trust issue for years, because we deal with some of the same problems. There are plenty of hacks and charlatans that would sell a $10 ebook or $100 course that’s full of junk info, in the same way there are plenty of publications that exist simply to peddle partisan lies (on both sides). To overcome the clickbait, we’ve had to build trust with our audiences by showing our work and sharing our process — and doing it consistently.

In this new era, readership is based on trust, and trust comes from showing your work, sharing your process, taking your audience along for the ride, and admitting when you mess up. With your background, skills, and training, I am confident you’ll learn quickly. Which is good…because we’re running out of time.

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