Building Trust

By Josie Fey

Last weekend I attended the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s AAN Digital 2017 conference in Portland. Co-hosted by Willamette Week and The Portland Mercury, the event brought together journalists, editors and students in alternative media from around the country to discuss new trends and strategies in the field.

That Friday happened to be the day of the presidential inauguration, so with the election fresh on my mind, I first attended a session about rebuilding trust in the media. It was co-lead by University of Oregon journalism professor Damian Radcliffe, and JoEllen Green Kaiser, Executive Director at The Media Consortium.

Both presenters gave a plus side: people are interested in what’s happening within their communities and still have faith in their local, alternative papers. However, it is the corporate, national media that are having trouble retaining that kind of trust.

But no media outlets are immune to the occasional side eye, and it never hurts to re-establish trust with audiences. Radcliffe gave us a few strategies to consider in pursuit of this goal:

  • Be willing to rethink the old philosophies of journalism – prioritize creativity over objectivity.
  • Actually put these new ideas into practice.
  • Be cognizant of the evolving consumption methods of the audiences you’re trying to reach.

All great ideas, but I couldn’t help thinking about the paradox we formed in our breakout session. Here was a group of journalists sitting together, talking about how to be more effective for  their audiences while inauguration protests were amplifying just a few blocks away.

The following day, two fellow reporters and I made our way to the Portland sister march of the worldwide Women’s March on Washington to join in solidarity and document the historic event.

We went straight toward the speaker’s stage to be close to the action, and pretty soon we were enveloped into a muddy crowd that had begun to stretch all along the river and into the city. The sheer volume of people and the intersection of activism blew me away. I was moved by the experience and wanted to keep up the momentum.

Once I got home and took stock of it all, I wondered – in this new paradigm, how can a journalist really connect with people? And then I thought back to what I’d learned in Damian’s session the day before: simply, be trustworthy.

So, how can we put that into action? Luckily, he laid out some tactics to support those get-people-to-trust-you-again strategies we discussed before:

  1. Focus on reporting stories that you won’t find elsewhere, so your audience knows you’re going the extra mile to keep them informed. Don’t do what everyone else is doing.
  2. Celebrate successes more! Step back when you’ve done something right and take stock in it. Use that going forward.
  3. Seek out partnerships with “unusual suspects.” Try collaborating on stories with other media outlets or organizations with whom you’ve not worked before. Don’t isolate yourselves.
  4. Don’t be afraid of solutions or advocacy journalism. The way we tell stories must evolve. Objectivity isn’t necessarily the standard by which you should continue to operate.
  5. Be transparent with your audience about your story development processes. Secrecy is out and engagement is in. Events are a great way to facilitate this (and perhaps raise money).
  6. Get creative about the ways in which you tell stories. Work with local visual or performance artists. Again, ask your audience what they’d like to see. Think outside the column.
  7. Label your content. Be explicit about commentary vs. news or the difference between sponsored content and native advertising. Not everyone is familiar with these terms, and people should know what they’re reading.

But there’s something I would add. When I got to the march and found myself shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people, I put away my voice recorder and notebook and just absorbed what was happening. I watched, and listened, and commiserated with my friends about the relentless rain. In other words, I was present. I did connect with people.

Being trustworthy, in the context of journalism, means prioritizing our role as a member of society before “getting the story.” So here’s my additional tactic for getting people to trust you: If you find yourself in the middle of a historical march, get off your computer and get on your feet. You can always write about it later.