Trust is a crucial aspect of journalism, but it’s a slippery concept and hard to measure

A recent piece by CUNY professor and author Jeff Jarvis about how to improve the public’s trust in journalism sparked a Twitter debate among some leading figures in the media industry on the weekend — a debate that centered on whether trust is a meaningful way of looking at the value of news. Since this is a topic that some people even outside the media might be interested in, I collected some of the Twitter discussion in a Storify module, and have also embedded some of it below.

Jarvis’s post was a response to a Medium piece written by Richard Gingras — the head of Google News — and Sally Lehrman, a fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics who specializes in journalism. In the piece, the two wrote about how the lack of public trust in the media industry is a growing problem, and described some ways in which media companies could try to change that, including:

Posting a mission statement and ethics policy: “Both news organizations and individual journalists could build trust by stating their objectives, their capabilities and their standards,” Gingras and Lehrman argue.

More disclosure about the process: “News outlets could signal editing levels by creating a clear labeling system or listing all participants in the process such as fact checkers, editors, and even lawyers.”

Citations (via links) and corrections: Citations “would allow audiences to assess their effort and accuracy. An effective system would also allow audiences to alert editors to perceived inaccuracies.”

Does more trust mean better journalism?

In a nutshell, Gingras and Lehrman argue that more transparency about the way that the news business or the journalism business works would serve readers better and increase trust — and that this in turn would help create value for media companies. They said they have created the Trust Project in partnership with the Markkula Center to pursue such changes in the industry.

In his response, Jarvis suggested that since Gingras is concerned about such issues, he could get his employer to “encourage these behaviors by favoring news organizations, journalists, and other sources that follow standards such as these.” This would be an addition signal of quality that Google could use when surfacing news stories, he argued. Google could also rank sites that produce original work higher than sites that just copy or aggregate it, Jarvis said.

After both Gingras and News Corp. executive Raju Narisetti posted a link to Jarvis’s piece, Emily Bell — who runs the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University — questioned whether looking at trust was the right way to think about value in journalism, or increasing the likelihood of success in media.

Bell argued that identifying “trustworthiness” was a difficult concept to begin with, since some people might find a certain news source interesting or valuable without it necessarily being trustworthy — and others might disagree on whether a specific outlet was trustworthy or not because of their political views. Bell and others also said that asking Google to measure quality journalism was problematic.

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One point that Bell seemed to be making was that the success of a media outlet — and particularly its financial success — doesn’t really have any relationship to whether it is “trusted” or not, with BuzzFeed being a good example: in a recent Pew survey, the site ranked low on trustworthiness, and yet its readership and its revenue base appears to be large and growing rapidly.

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Gingras admitted that trust might not be a good substitute or proxy for journalistic value, but he argued that good journalism can’t exist unless readers trust either the news source or the reporter, or both. But Bell countered that in both the NSA leaks case and the Pentagon Papers case, the source of the information was widely mis-trusted, and yet the news stories were still worthwhile.

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At this point, C.W. Anderson — a professor of media culture at CUNY who has written a book about the decline of the media industry in Philadelphia — pointed out that there is no real correlation between the trustworthiness of journalism and the quality of that journalism, noting that the media was trusted more in the 1950s than at any time since, but the journalism was arguably terrible.

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Bell pointed out that large numbers of people distrust major news entities such as the New York Times or the Guardian — in other words, people from one side of the political likely distrust the Times but trust Fox News, and others feel the opposite. And she argued that while Walter Cronkite may have been widely trusted during the heyday of TV news, no one would argue that was the best time for journalism.

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It’s worth noting that despite her criticism of some aspects of the argument, or about trust as a measure of value, Bell made a point of saying that she agrees with the approach outlined by Gingras and Lehrman, and noted that she was part of the original thinking behind the Guardian‘s embrace of “open journalism.” But trust is a difficult way to measure value because it so subjective, she said. What follows is the Storify I created to capture some of the discussion.

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Photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Sam72