Can The Trust Project’s Plan to Win Back Audiences Work?


The news industry is dealing with some serious trust issues. Yet even as confidence in the global media sinks to an all-time low, hopes for regaining it are far from lost.

The Trust Project, comprised of a consortium of news organizations and tech platforms, have a plan to win back audiences by sharing more information behind the creation of news stories online.

Staging a comeback

Led and created by Sally Lehrman, the senior director of journalism ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, The Trust Project began growing roots in 2015 and officially launched in November 2017.

First on the agenda was to determine what consumers value in news and what makes them trust it.

Over two years, researchers conducted dozens of interviews across Europe and the United States to get the information they wanted. Then with collaborators from more than 75 new organizations, the initiative devised a set of digital standards meant to increase accountability and transparency.

They agreed on eight core “Trust Indicators” to roll out to help identify and surface high-quality journalism:

Best Practices: What are your standards? Who funds the news outlet? What is the outlet’s mission? Plus commitments to ethics, diverse voices, accuracy, making corrections and other standards.

Author/Reporter Expertise: Who made this? Details about the journalist, including their expertise and other stories they have worked on.

Type of Work: What is this? Labels to distinguish opinion, analysis and advertiser (or sponsored) content from news reports.

Citations and References: For investigative or in-depth stories, access to the sources behind the facts and assertions.

Methods: Also for in-depth stories, information about why reporters chose to pursue a story and how they went about the process.

Locally Sourced? Lets you know when the story has local origin or expertise. Was the reporting done on the scene, with deep knowledge about the local situation or community?

Diverse Voices: A newsroom’s efforts and commitment to bringing in diverse perspectives. Readers noticed when certain voices, ethnicities, or political persuasions were missing.

Actionable Feedback: A newsroom’s efforts to engage the public’s help in setting coverage priorities, contributing to the reporting process, ensuring accuracy and other areas. Readers want to participate and provide feedback that might alter or expand a story.

To see an early example of the Trust Indicators applied to a news story, view this mockup.

Notably, The Trust Project’s scope extends beyond online news sites. Through partnerships with tech giants like Facebook and Google, the goal is to send such platforms machine-readable signals they can incorporate into what articles they display and how.

The following video shows how Facebook plans to display the indicators on articles in its News Feed:

Will it work?

The Trust Project’s goal to restore confidence in the news media, while cutting through misinformation and fake news, is commendable. Pairing abysmal trust scores with publishers’ rocky transition to digital (if they have survived long enough to get that far), many online news outlets are sitting in precarious positions. Implementing strategies that could both bring them more traffic and rebuild their public credibility would be like killing two very threatening birds with one stone.

However, at this point incorporating the eight core indicators may translate into little more than a well-meaning gesture.

According to Laura Hazard Owen of Nieman Lab, the first publishers that will display the Trust Indicators alongside its content will include:

  • From the US: The Washington Post, Mic, and The Independent Journal Review
  • From the UK: The Economist and Trinity Mirror (national papers include Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Sunday People, and Daily Record)
  • From Canada: The Globe and Mail
  • From Germany: The German Press Agency dpa
  • From Italy: La Repubblica and La Stampa

The leanings of the majority of the above publications are left or center-left, excluding The Independent Journal Review, The Economist, and German Press Agency.

To complicate matters further, in countries such as the US and UK, which The 2017 Digital News Report shows have both polarized political and media climates, consumers are more likely to trust news sources that correspond to their own political leanings. This is true even though consumers in both countries show low trust levels in news outlets overall.

It is then questionable whether adding more context behind the creation of a Washington Post article would make it appear more credible to a right-wing conservative. Nevertheless, perhaps the widespread adoption of the Trust Indicators across diverse online publications could make audiences with different political views more open to reading articles from publishers they would normally avoid.

Uncertain future for tech partnerships

Tech giants Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Bing are already onboard with The Trust Project. In an article in The Atlantic published in May, Lehrman said:

“We’re already working with these four companies, all of which have said they want to use our indicators to prioritize honest, well-reported news over fakery and falsehood.”

How these collaborations will affect search engine results and social news feeds is not yet clear. Again, Owen notes that there have been no public promises from the platforms regarding whether their algorithms will give preference to publishers using the Trust Indicators.

As the small group of first wave of publishers roll them out, favoring The Trust Project collaborators could also be criticized as an unfair advantage. Small and independent publishers won’t be given the opportunity to join in the foreseeable future, which could significantly harm traffic flow from social media and search engines. However, this outcome rests on the assumption that technology platforms will, in fact, give preference to the Trust Indicators.

In the end, what’s most important about the project is the intent not only to create a standardized method to assess trustworthiness, but that this will eventually help raise the quality of online journalism overall.

Restoring public confidence in the media will be no simple task that one initiative will likely be able to tackle on its own. As The Trust Project launches and new reports and statistics on poor trust levels continue to emerge, the global media certainly has its work cut out for itself. It’s time, more than ever, to keenly monitor the impact of such strategies and keep dialogue open on how they can be improved, refined, and built upon.