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What can we do so that readers trust the news?

HOW CAN news organisations win back the trust of readers at a time when the "fake news cycle" is causing so much damage?

Ann Gripper

Mirror Online's Ann Gripper speaking (right), with Jack Lahart to her left

The April LFB meeting had an update from one initiative attempting to do just that. Still in its early days, the Trust Project aims to "increase the trust" of readers in news online by linking articles to "Trust Indicators" with information about the news outlet, its ethics, its mission and ownership, the background of its journalists and other data. Is there an opportunity for freelances to benefit from this initiative? And should we be concerned about the role of the "giants of tech"- Facebook, Google and Twitter - who are partners in the Trust Project?

Our speakers were Ann Gripper (@angripper), executive editor (digital) at Mirror Online and Jack Lahart (@LahartJack), assistant community editor at the Economist.

The Trust Project was developed under the leadership of Sally Lehrman at Santa Clara University's Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics and it has "spread quickly". Our speakers said after over a year of "twice weekly international conference calls" there were "still a relatively small group of publishers" on board in the UK - including Haymarket and the BBC, which were in the first round of Trust Project implementation in the UK. The FT and and the Guardian were part of the overall development of Trust Indicators.

There's a "parallel group of Trust Project partners in the US, with the Washington Post and other big titles" and the Trust Project's been adopted by Italian titles Repubblica and La Stampa, both of which were part of the first round of Trust Project implementation. Anna Masera, public editor of La Stampa, sent a message about the Trust Initiative to LFB: it's here.

Sally Lehrman contacted LFB to clarify that Trust Project partners were hand-picked and by invitation only: "we weren't recruiting particpants."

While the Trust Project has since "been overtaken by events... by the 'fake news' wave of Donald Trump", Ann told how it "started well before the fake news cycle". It began with interviews with people, asking "What would make you trust something? Her first encounter with the Trust Project was at a BBC News Lab "hackathon" back in 2016, which is round the time Jack got on board for the Economist.

How it works

What is the Trust Project, then? As Ann put it, "Technology has reduced trust in the media - we use technology to increase that trust... can we give people the signs and the signals and the information that they can make informed decisions, better decisions?" News organisations that sign up to the Trust Project and have implemented all its protocols can if they wish display a capital "T" logo on their webpages that links to "Trust Indicators" - there were originally 37 of these and there are now eight, which are part of the "minimal viable product" in the initial recent launch.

The Trust Indicators are about transparency: "being honest with our readers" - there is information on the ethics of the newspaper, its ownership, its journalists and their background, how it gathers news and writes stories. Mirror Online has transformed its "About us" page (now linked via a tiny "T" logo hidden right at the bottom of the homepage).

Jack Lehart (left, speaking) as Ann Gripper (left, with laptop)

The Economist's Jack Lehart (left, speaking) as Ann Gripper (left, with laptop) listens

Their About Us page has now become "Who are we? What we stand for. Our version of how we see ourselves." Previously Ann "didn't know we campaigned for more lifeboats after the Titanic sank!", nor were many readers aware of their campaign around the Hillsborough families. Now it reveals: "We have backed the Labour Party at every election since 1945" and even has a list of who are editors now - who would have thought it?"

Other Trust Indicators are "what type of work" an article is. While the Mirror already differentiated "between news and opinion, partly for legal reasons", other new category headings now appear clearly at the top of articles - they are now labelled as opinion, analysis, satire, reviews. ("Satire" in particular is a useful label: the genre carries a risk of being misperceived as fake news.)

Citations and references are also included, with links to these where possible. It's become "reasonably accepted we link to each other" among news outlets. Enraged readers in Liverpool ask, "Why did you link to The Sun?" - it's because that's where the Mirror got that particular story.

The corrections policy is "much tightened up" now that Mirror Online's with the Trust Project, without "littering the site with corrections".

"About us" also "explains we are a PLC - we are part of a big network of local titles" (although this bit hadn’t yet been updated since Trinity Mirror group took over the Express, Ann admitted.)

A piece of the action for freelances?

Bylines of Mirror journalists are also included wherever possible - linked to short biographies of staffers, as "knowing who wrote the story" is vital to the Trust Project.

It is "at present not possible for freelances to join the project," says Ann, but if you're "a regular freelance - for the Mirror or even an irregular writer... and you wanted a page that presented your credentials, we'd be more than happy to do that" for "freelances on our regular roster, particularly those based abroad".

Jack admitted "I hadn't really thought about how to incorporate freelances into it... Readers and users are increasingly looking for signs like this... If there is a way to get freelances involved... I would really encourage it... readers are looking for it."

Mirror Online implement all these Trust Indicators "for the readers, do it for quality" but they also "need more traffic" coming to their website, "more money, more value... there's a limit to how much money we can just spend on a good charitable project without it being for our benefit."

Ultimately the benefit will be more traffic coming to Trust Project partners' websites as a result of more readers trusting their content. "If they trust us more, they come to us."

The plan is that once there’s "bigger volume", by negotiation with the "platforms" - Google, Facebook, Twitter - they will "make sure [users] come to us publishers" instead of going to a Macedonian factory for "made-up nonsense". Google, Facebook and Twitter will, in Jack's words, "reward" trusted news organisations for their trustworthy content. It wasn't explicitly stated in the meeting how this process would work. There has been mention of some identifiable metadata that would drive "trustworthy" news providers up the search rankings.

"How often" asked Ann, "do you go on a website and you actually don't even really know where you are? Maybe a friend has shared it. Do I trust this, do I not? We're working in media, we make these assessments more often. Other people don’t necessarily have that mindset.. can we make more of that information available to people?" so they can make a decision on whether to trust a news source. Adds Ann, "I can't make them trust us, I can only give them information... so that they can make their own judgements."

What about enforcement of Trust Project principles? "It's still in its early stages." It's been "live for four months... We get emails from Sally (Lehrman), 'What's going on with this bit?'" There are contact details on the website for the Project if anyone's got thoughts on it. Jack concedes "there's a lot to be resolved" as it's early days yet.

Jack, who opened by praising the "exhibition of democracy" that was LFB voting on Branch business preceding the talk, is assistant community editor of the Economist social team and was previously in social media marketing for the Economist. Before that he was in communications.

His role is to "manage around distribution by social media and email newsletters as well". He says that "email is not dead, email is coming back... with a vengeance with newsletters... since the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump and fake news" the Economist has seen more subscriptions and more people signing up to "those newsletters."

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Examples of Trust Indicators on Mirror Online, shown to us by Ann Gripper (left to right: Category indicators for Review, Background and Satire.)

Implementing the Trust Indicators at the Economist meant "flagging to users that we are a trustworthy news organisation". They cover "our ethics - who owns us, how we go about producing our content, our gender pay gap... How many men and women are employed at the Economist".

Readers are now realising that "fake news is happening" according to Jack, and "reacting in a positive way by going to news organisations like ours - that have these Trust Indicators". While the Economist is "not a breaking news organisation - it's breaking news that tends to go viral on social media," it's a viewspaper ("a term I absolutely hate", says Jack) and online "there is a space for - analytical pieces that we do.". Some of the Trust Indicators present a challenge for the Economist (and parts of the BBC) because of their tradition of not using bylines.

What was the return on the investment for the Economist in joining the Trust Project, then? It was "born primarily out of... a need to show we were a trusted source on social media. In the last couple of years social media has literally flattened the media landscape, meaning that everybody is a publisher... anybody can be a news outlet - and with that has come a drop in quality of information and a rise in misleading information being distributed across these social networks."

The Economist "recognised the need to combat that... an opportunity to work with these guys and come up with a reliable system... including the likes of Google and Facebook. We saw a need to ensure that quality journalism being served across networks."

Clicks on Google, Facebook and Twitter

The Trust Project does entail collaboration with Google and it's partly funded by the search giant. Facebook and Twitter are also partners of the Trust Project. Says Jack, "Realistically all websites now rely to a large extent on these platforms for their traffic." (Other search engines are available: see, for example, here and here.)

The "coalescing of both publishers and the tech giants" that is the Trust Project results in "a huge amount of traffic to our sites, subscriptions revenue... Not having them involved would have been a waste of time." adds Jack, who describes the process as the "tech giants of the world and the publishers working together to try and solve this problem that affects them both."

He added that "tech giants are waking up to the problems that fake news can inflict in their platforms" (The meeting took place during a background of yet more Cambridge Analytica revelations, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg being grilled by Congressional Committees.) Jack hopes that through Trust Indicators "these tech giants will be able to identify these publishers as trustworthy news sources."

Jack predicted that "regulation is coming to this space" of online news platforms. The internet "is not regulated, tech giants are not regulated, people are waking up to that now." He perceives there's " a desire to regulate and to make the internet a safer space... newspapers have high standards because they are regulated."

There is of course, the ethical question of how you go about deciding who is a trustworthy news source? This is, says Jack, "something that the Trust Project still needs to get to grips with." He also noted that the Project is still "mainly limited to bigger media companies... Small scale local news organisations who produce wonderful content on a daily basis - they need to be brought in... if the likes of Facebook and Google start rewarding news providers" for "trustworthy content" and "those local providers aren't included... that will start causing problems for the local news organisations and smaller news organisations."

Ann mentioned plans to develop and share standardised Trust Project plug-ins for the Wordpress content management system so that smaller outlets can be part of this, incorporating standardised internet language (in a Schema metadata format) for the back-end formatting of elements such as the About Us pages of news outlets, so these can be ultimately identified as trustworthy by search engines.

Is there any feedback yet on how the Trust Project actually affects how much readers trust news providers? The Mirror got a grant for Trust Project to find out - as Ann put it, "Did doing any of this stuff actually matter?"

Ann reports that the Mirror were "actually quite surprised" at the results of reader surveys just a few months after their Trust Project launch. There was a 9-point uplift in responses to the "We have trustworthy journalists", question on the survey. Jack says it's "it's too early to say" and it's hard to tell "whether a reader came to us because of the Trust Project,"

From the audience, LFB's Simon Pirani reminded us that just a decade ago, the internet was full of "public space optimists". Simon was of the opinion that, instead of "chasing clicks on Facebook, Google and Twitter" and seeking ways of "persuading Google Facebook and Twitter to be less horrible", we should be campaigning on "how can we return to internet into being some sort of public open, public space, which it clearly isn't."

  • This article was last modified on 24/04/18 after Trust Project founder Sally Lehrman contacted LFB with some clarifications. These included detail on the role of various publications within the Trust Project, that it was invitation-only, the number of Trust Indicators there are and the status of the "T" logo. Sally also gave us an update, the Trust Prjoect now has "new implementation groups starting up now in the US and Europe. They are also carefully selected because we are still beta testing."