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Report: How to Build Trust In the Digital Age

A recent report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism looks at the quality of journalism in the digital age. The report’s author, Richard Sambrook, is a journalism professor at Cardiff University and former director of BBC News.  In the report, Sambrook investigates the notions of objectivity and impartiality in the digital world, and whether or not we can trust the new forms of journalism that are emerging as a result of new technologies.

Sambrook cites Bill Kovach and Tim Rosentiel’s book Blur when he says that there is less “journalism of verification” in the digital age—traditional journalism that relies on accuracy and context. He writes that as the traditional business models erode, there has been an increase in “journalism of assertion” and “journalism of affirmation”—models that rely on immediacy and volume, and affirming the beliefs of its audience. The digital space also allows for a greater number of participants like corporations, governments, and NGOs that are promoting their own agendas.

All of these changes undermine journalistic objectivity and impartiality, concepts that Sambrook says, “were never intended to suggest journalists had no opinions or biases of their own. On the contrary, they were professional disciplines or processes designed to acknowledge and counter any inherent bias in the reporter.” In an age when emphasis is placed on output, Sambrook argues that the professional notions of objectivity and impartiality are important for the process of journalism. Focusing on the process as opposed to the product may be helpful in distinguishing trustworthiness in news.

Increasing transparency in one way to promote trust: “transparency is the new objectivity” as David Weinberger said. But while the report advocates for greater transparency, it also points out where this strategy comes up short. “Attempts at radical transparency have not been hugely successful,” writes Sambrook. “Partly, of course, the consumer simply wants ‘the story’ and is less interested in the journalist’s personal backstory getting in the way.” He points out that transparency as a method of promoting trust relies on a high level of media literacy, and does not address the need to build up “evidence-based reporting” and the “plurality of views.” To supplement transparency, Sambrook suggests redefining objectivity: “One way of reinventing the relevance of impartiality in a more diverse world is to broaden rather than limit the range of voices. It is to interpret impartiality as extending opinion, not limiting it.”

Also among the report’s proposed solutions are “new codes of practice, new forms of regulation… technology solutions, and greater emphasis on education and media literacy.” Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of the Knight Foundation, argued that it is part of a journalist’s job to promote news literacy in the digital world. “The story is not the only thing that matters,” he said. “We need news literacy. We need engaged communities. We need transparency and accountability.”

What else do you think needs to happen to build trust in journalism in the digital age?

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