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Trust remains a key problem for journalists

Posted: Nov. 28, 2016 | Tags: journalism

“I don’t know the answers,” Richard Gingras, vice president of Google News, said at “Considering The Future Of Journalism" recently at the Newseum. And easy solutions are not in sight, he added, when he and Michael Oreskes, senior vice president of news at NPR, took the stage. But both offered ideas and made the case for stronger content.

Being a digital media entrepreneur, Gingras concentrated on the technological challenges and opportunities journalism faces. “Media dominates our lives,” Gingras said, underlining his argument with the fact that “more smartphones are activated each day than babies are born.” 

And, he said, “The pace of technological change will continue; if anything, it will quicken. To think of this as a period of transition from one state to another — not wise.”

Although the internet disrupted established media markets, Gingras diagnosed an architectural crisis online.

“Sluggish performance has turned the web from an experience we used to call surfing to one that feels more like slogging through mud,” Gingras said. 

This observation was the starting point for the Accelerated Mobile Pages Project (AMP), an open-source project by Google and news publishers in Europe. The developers aim to ease the load time of mobile websites with simple changes to the HTML-code. Gingas said these changes make AMP-websites 10 times smaller and four times faster than other websites, which leads to more clicks and, therefore, more ad revenue. But ad revenue is not the only way to gain money. Gingras also made the case for better content. 

“Marketplaces might change, but marketplace principles do not. Subscription offers will work if there is a compelling value proposition,” he said. 

Examples like the successful subscription model of The New York Times (1.6 million digital subscribers) or the French online journal Mediapart, which gained 120,000 subscribers with its investigative stories, fuel Gingras' hope that “consumers will pay for important content they value.”

Trust plays a major role in this equation. Both Gingras and Oreskes diagnosed a decline of trust in news organizations in the last 30 to 40 years — long before the internet disrupted the markets. To regain the trust, Oreskes proposed focusing on local journalism. 

“All trust and relationships between audiences and journalistic organizations is built from the ground up,” Oreskes said. “That’s not an easy thing to do for national news organizations.” 

Gingras emphasized that data journalism could help close the “gaps between perception and reality” that he recognizes in today's society. He recalled an instance in which he was at a friend’s house in a quiet residential area when his friend checked out some noise in neighborhood — with a loaded handgun. Gingras researched the number of murders in a five-mile radius in the previous two years and found two, both related to domestic violence. 

“No home invasions, no robberies. But that is not what people hear about every day,” Gingras said. “They hear about the horrific; they hear about the anomalies. And then they translate those anomalies into an understanding of their normal world, whether they are correct or not.” 

“Being the presenters of facts is a fundamental role of journalism,” Oreskes added. And despite Gingras' opinion that the internet has lead to a “post-factual society,” people still seem to want just the facts.

“The most successful digital content in the history of NPR were the factchecks during the [presidential] debates,” Oreskes said. 

Still, the public needs to trust the source. To discover what enhances public trust in journalism, Gingras co-founded The Trust Project at Santa Clara University.  

“Quality news organizations can and should leverage the true value of the principles, the processes and the systems they have in place and be loud and proud about how they do their news,” Gingras said. 

Gingras also advocated for the implementation of “constructive news," a concept developed by Ulrik Haagerup. The Danish newsmaker argues that news shouldn’t just focus on the negative side of a story. Instead, news should address the underlying problems and explore possible solutions. Haagerup established the concept at the public broadcasting station DR, where rising ratings of its top evening news show beat the commercial competitors. 

Oreskes noted another underlying cause for the distrust of journalism, which is harder to resolve — a distrust in democracy itself.

“Democracy is pretty much like marriage,” Oreskes said. “It requires constant attention, and the minute you take it for granted, you’re in deep trouble. And if you look back over the last 30–40 years, you can see a steady erosion of the quality of American democracy.”

Oreskes said there is not only an issue on the “supply side” but also on the “demand side.” Part of the problem is “the decline, but essentially the elimination of, civics as an idea in American education," he said.

“It’s taken us decades to dig into the hole that both the country and journalism find themselves in right now,” Oreskes said. “And technology didn’t dig us into this hole, and technology alone won’t dig us out of this hole.” 

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