Over its one and half years of life, the Trust Project has been collecting insight from audiences through a direct dialogue aimed at designing media for trust. Its goal is to help digital news audiences differentiate authentic from inauthentic news by creating signals or “trust indicators”. The Trust Project is composed of a coalition of 70 organisations including BBC, Google, Financial Times, Vox Media, The Washington Post or Zeit Online.

Finding out what the public values in the news; what helps people trust news; what has broken their trust or how these experiences and feelings intersect with the mission and values of journalism are some of the questions fuelling the Trust Project.

Its director Sally Lehrman, whose journalistic credentials include a Peabody Award and a John S. Knight Fellowship, started the New Media Executive Roundtable and Online Credibility Watch in 1997. Maybe she foresaw a world where fake news could affect the outcome of a US election and where 81 percent of Americans would get at least some of their news through websites, apps or social networks. She explains:

“News organisations make a lot of assumptions about their audiences and are not always analysing issues around trustworthiness or credibility”.

The coalition has started to work on these insights to identify a set of critical signals that could then be converted by technologists into tangible indicators. For a user it could be many things: a visualisation, a feature, a search facility, an algorithm, a form, a service, and so on. These would let audiences know something about the trustworthiness underlying a news item and its producer. With trust in media and journalism at an all time low, the mission could not be more timely.

While working on ways to convey signals of trust to news audiences, Lehrman confesses that a lot of the media partners underwent aha moments:

“We may have great practices as journalists, but the public is not always aware of them.”

Finding a correction on a news website, a visible author bio or references to an ethics policy can be an uphill battle.

Crafting trust signals – one artifact at a time

So far, 38 trust indicators have been roughed out, from which eight will be built. They include a suite of Best Practices; Citations and References; Label Story Type; Author ID/Bio; Original Reporting; Diverse Voices; Actionable Feedback (engagement); Local.

The two most complex ones, in Lehrman’s view, are diversity and public engagement.

  • Diversity indicators: How can a news organisation signify its levels of diversity in the digital news ecosystem? Diversity, Lehrman says, “has been an aspiration of the news industry, but it has not done so well on it”. Diversity signaling should be able to address issues around plurality of voices; news organisations can become complacent, relying on the same people or institutions more for convenience than as part of a search for truth; they should be rewarded for seeking out and exploiting a diverse range of sources.
  • Public engagement: when experimenting in this area, any system of evaluation should recognise news organisations that find creative ways to promote searchability, visualisation, interactivity and mining of user-generated data.

If you have ideas or insights on these two indicators, be sure to share them with the team at the Trust Project and engage with the initiative and its partners.

Ethical digital products

Promising pilots are underway. These include a simple citation template that can be easily integrated into a reporter’s workflow (Vox); a methodology template to inform users of the reporting that underpins a story (Toronto Globe & Mail, The Taken) and a process to fact-check selected coverage on a specific topic sphere, such as politics or government (API/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

At a hackathon held in London in late November and co-hosted by the BBC, new trust indicating tools took shape:

  • Mirror group developed a tool to identify if a news organisation and an author stick to the Trust Project’s guidelines.
  • BBC News Lab came up with a way to make information collected by journalists during research visible to others.
  • The Guardian designed a tool that gets people outside their social filter bubbles offering opposing news items for them to read.
  • La Stampa worked on a way to identify the level of trust enjoyed by an author by looking at similar stories they have written.
  • WashingtonPost/BuzzFeed developed a tool to scan articles and find links and sources, making them visible to users.

Digital monetisation could follow quality content

By shining a light of high-quality news and journalism in the chaotic digital news ecosystem, the Trust Project could set the stage for high quality content business models to thrive. News organisations with a focus on quality would be able to reclaim disenfranchised digital monetisation models: people pay large sums of money to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants.

Two trends which can be found in the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016 support this link between reputation and profit. Firstly, “it seems that trust in the news is almost synonymous with trust in news brands.” Secondly, in countries where individual payments for online news are common, average amounts paid are comparatively low.

Take Norway, for contrast, where 27 percent pay (£41 annually) for online news, the highest payment levels of all the Digital News Report countries. Norway has average levels of trust, but newspaper readership and subscription levels have traditionally been high, helping the online transition. Although there is no correlation between perceived trustworthiness and willingness to pay for online news, it is fair to say that if trust declines, revenues will fall.

News organisations should check out the Trust Project for their own ‘aha moment’.

Getting involved with the Trust Project

Clara Llamas is a London based strategist specialised in media digitisation, business design and cloud-services research. She works with media, SMEs, investors and public organisations solving strategy development challenges using participatory research methods @vaibmu