I'm a journalist; why don't you trust me? (as told by API's Jane Elizabeth)


Fake news. Alternate facts. Waning trust.

As if those immersed in the journalism world didn't have enough to worry about, an undercurrent of declining trust has forced media institutions to ask the hardest question of all: Are we trustworthy? And if so, how do we convince others that's the case?

During a recent installment of the GateHouse Professional Development Series, Jane Elizabeth of the American Press Institute offered a look at some research that shows trust has slipped for journalists, but there are steps that can help to combat the slide.

Jane Elizabeth, American Press Institute

And Elizabeth, the senior manager of API's Accountability Journalism Program, explained that news organizations shouldn't shore up the trust of their readers just because it's a hot topic.

"I don't want you to think we feel like we need to fix trust in journalists just because now it's just sounds like a good thing to do," she said. "It's very clear from our research, that trust is a business imperative. If people trust you, your position in the media marketplace is going to be more stable. I think that's a very important point."

So what can be done? Here are a few of the pointers she offered up:

Show your face 

At one point, newspaper reporters were taught to remain behind the scenes. While it is important to refrain from inserting yourself in the story, it's imperative that people see you and feel like they know you. If they do, your trust will build. "People really want to see your face," Elizabeth said. She said websites should include bios, where appropriate, and even videos that highlight the staff.

Be concise

Research done as part of the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between the American Press Institute and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago showed that people want the facts to be right, but they also want the writing to be concise. In fact, 76 percent of those surveyed said being concise is critical. Think about that next time you author a 1,000-word story on a local common council meeting.

Get it right, but make it fast

While nearly nine in 10 of those surveyed said getting the facts correct was imperative, many put timeliness just as high. "Getting information to people in a timely manner was right up there too, according to our polling," Elizabeth noted. "And you can understand why. If you can disseminate information quickly, you must be plugged in, a knowledgeable person, and that makes an impression with readers."

Don't hide in an "ivory tower" 

Interact with the community you're covering. It will make you appear more accessible and show people you're seeking their opinions. Schedule a "coffee with a reporter" session at a local coffeehouse. The interaction will help build trust, and could give you some interesting sources for future stories.

And here's an extra tidbit that Elizabeth dropped during the session: Don't stress too much about offensive words or content. It will rarely make your readers lose trust in you.

"Interestingly, people weren't all that concerned about offensive content, even though some of our news organization get very stressed out and spend a lot of time debating whether to quote someone who said a bad word," Elizabeth wrote, noting that only 10 percent of the people surveyed said they lost trust in a news source over something offensive.

View interactive graphic

Tim Schmitt, project manager with GateHouse Media, has spent decades in various newsrooms – some print and some broadcast. He was a sports reporter, news reporter and then managing editor of his hometown paper, the Tonawanda (N.Y.) News, where he led an award-winning editorial page. He's worked as an editor, staffer or longtime contributor with the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff, the Mesa Tribune, the Arizona Republic, the alt-weekly Buffalo Current and the Niagara Falls Gazette, where he was executive sports editor over four dailies – spearheading coverage of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres. He also worked as a weekend anchor and reporter at Buffalo's ABC-TV affiliate, WKBW, and was the news director of WLVL-AM in the Buffalo market, where he hosted a daily two-hour talk show covering local politics and current events. He moved to Austin to join GateHouse in early 2015.


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