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Transparency, training and trust: Would you believe it?

Propaganda, click-bait and conspiracy theories: the internet is awash with unreliable content. How can audiences sort fact from fiction? Reporters without Borders are defining the universal values of journalism so that platforms and search engines can put trustworthy content first. The Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) is asking advertisers to avoid news sites that don’t have decent standards. The NewsGuard team have ruffled feathers by providing critical ‘nutrition labels’ of some well-known publications, and the NCTJ is continuing to train reporters in the classic virtues of responsible journalism.

Olaf Steenfadt (Reporters Withough Borders), Anna-Sophie Harling (NewsGuard), Harriet Kingaby (CAN) and Will Gore (NCTJ) took to the Trust in Journalism Conference stage alongside chair Ed Procter (IMPRESS) to discuss their different approaches to rebuilding trust in today’s complex news ecosystem.

Will Gore placed trust at the centre of the journalist’s world:

“Being sceptical as an audience is no bad thing, but I think it’s intensely important for journalists that they work towards being trusted. It seems to me that that is a fundamental imperative for all journalists.” (Will Gore, NCTJ)

Will also explained how the NCTJ tries to build trust in journalism through providing quality qualifications and training to young journalists.

Anna-Sophie Harling, Head of Europe at NewsGuard, emphasised the importance of giving the public the facts about a given online news source but allowing them ultimately to determine what is trustworthy:

“The idea is that you give people information about the sources that they are seeing in their news feeds or social media, on Facebook or Google search results and then with that information they can then decide for themselves whether they would like to trust that source, whether they would like to click, like or share.” (Anna-Sopgie Harlin, NewsGuard)

Anna-Sophie explained that the way that NewsGuard tackles the ‘fake news problem’ and the decline of trust in journalism is to “highlight to people what credible journalists are doing that makes them credible. Show them what good and quality journalism looks like and highlight the bad actors, the purveyors of false information, the people who wake up in the morning and produce agenda driven journalism without telling you about it and in that sense we would like to create a more informed readership of the news.”

Harling referred to how NewsGuard works through reviewing websites and reaching out to them to let them know how they have performed against NewsGuard's criteria. They give them the opportunity to comment and change their ways, as well as their work investigating and flagging sites masquerading and trustworthy news sources. From over 3000 sites that have been rated, over a quarter made changes based on NewsGuard findings, something which makes Harling hopeful:

“We are hopeful that we can work to improve the transparency of online journalism in a way that ultimately serves the end user best.”

Olaf Steenfadt, Project Director at Reporters Without Borers (RSF), described how their Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) has been crafted to combat the “perfect storm against journalism” that has been brewing, created from “concentration of ownership, news deserts, media capture (…) declining levels of trust in journalism, and online disinformation.”

“Very broadly, as an approach against this development and curing [desinformation] we see two main avenues. One is chasing the bad, the other is supporting the good. We have a little bit of concern on the first track because chasing the bad can always lead to censorship and misuse and so this is the main reason we opted for the second approach, so then you ask how to you define ‘good’ journalism.” (Olaf Steenfadt, RSF)

The JTI looks at this question in what is effectively an ISO standardisation project for journalism, looking at drafting and setting standards to be adopted and enforced by and for journalists to ensure high quality reporting and to help recapture trust in news.

“The essence of what everybody, even on a global scale, believes what good journalism is is quite consensual. But there are two problems here. One, compliance – do we really stick as a journalistic community to our own professional norms? And maybe the even bigger problem is algorithmic amplification, which usually rewards the exact opposite of ethical journalism.”

On the other side of the dilemma sit advertisers, unsure of space spaces to place their ads in the unpredictable online world. Olaf raised this issue, and how the JTI standards setting can help:

“Advertisers are in high demand of criteria and indicators to guide them and to protect their brands. This is the ultimate goal, to align ad spending with compliance with ethical norms in journalism to re-monetise a journalism worthy of its name.”

Harriet Kingaby of the Conscious Advertising Network echoed:

“Advertisers are currently asking themselves a lot of questions around the current system. If you are a digital advertiser, you are likely pouring a lot of money into a supply chain that is completely opaque, your advertising is coming out at the end, a lot of it is getting lost to fraud. Ad fraud is the second biggest funder of organised crime and accounts for billions every year. Your advertising might be appearing next to unsuitable content, hate speech, fake news - or you might have concerns around the actual effectiveness of how some of the platforms are telling you your advertising is going.”

“Good quality journalism has been lumped with cat videos as ‘content’, inventory to be bought and sold in the current system and that is a really big problem.” (Harriet Kingaby, Conscious Advertising Network)

The wider problem at play, as Anna-Sophie Harling sees it, is the role of tech giants in helping to signpost and sustain trusted information sources on their platforms:

“Tech platforms are really best placed to implement tools like NewsGuard’s and standards in a way that best serves their end users. Ultimately it will take the big tech platforms to engage with the NCTJs, the JTIs, the IMPRESSes and the NewsGuards of the world to create change.”

What can publishers do to distinguish themselves as trusted sources of news?

Will Gore (NCTJ) focused on quality:

“If you are producing quality journalism that people recognise as reaching high standards, then there will be a market for it.”

For Anna-Sophie Harling (NewsGuard), the answer is one step further:

“Quality through transparency; I would say to news sites to be extremely transparent about how you’re funded, where you get your money, who’s in charge, what your editorial processes are, what your corrections policies are, what your vision is (...) Increasingly users will look at what is behind a site in order to figure out if they can trust it or not.”

Olaf Steenfadt (RSF) also pointed at transparency:

"Transparency is not an end in and of itself, but it really pays off. If you go transparent just use the support that’s out there; it’s not rocket science. There are checklists, there are a lot of institutions that can help you and it’s a one off thing, it takes half a day to really go through the list and disclose your identity."

And with the advertising element in mind, Harriet Kingaby (Conscious Advertising Network) advised publishers to make their trustworthy status work for them:

“Join these initiatives [JTI, NewsGuard, NCTJ, IMPRESS]. Start that conversation with advertisers if you feel that’s something you would like to explore because the time is ripe. People are asking a lot of questions [about] the current system and you are producing great stuff. The environment is 'brand safe' and you’ve got something really strong to offer.”

This discussion took place at the Trust in Journalism Conference 2019 (14 November 2019).


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