In this short post I want to clear something up about how trust operates in a news operation. I am going to use examples from the New York Times, which is risky — because the Times is singular — but I don’t believe the calculus is much different at the Los Angles Times, the Times of India or the Times of Trenton in Central New Jersey.
I will introduce a quick “banking” theory of trust, in which some acts of publishing deposit trust in the newsroom bank, while others are more revenue neutral and still others draw trust from previous deposits. To frame the same point another way, some decisions that editors make put stress on accumulated reserves of trust, while others add to those reserves. From this point of view, trust — credibility! — is not something you have or don’t have as a news provider. Rather, the way you operate can build up or draw down the “reserves” of trust.
Let me sketch three simplified trust scenarios, not because they represent the full range of possibilities but only to get the basic point across. They are presented in order: from most transparent to most opaque, and therefore from trust-producing to trust-consuming.
1. “Don’t take our word for it. Judge for yourself.”
This is when a news organization renders a judgment, and then provides the users with the tools and information to “check” that judgment by conducting essentially the same operation themselves. If I summarize what Senator Rand Paul said on ‘Face the Nation’ this week, and then link to the transcript so you can assess for yourself whether my summary is fair and accurate, I’m not asking you to take my word for it. I’m allowing you to discover on your own how faithful my summary is to the original. If my paraphrase is tendentious, you have everything you need to find me out and dock me points for distorting what Senator Paul said. But if my description is confirmed by the transcript I showed you, that’s points for me.
This is what I mean by a trust deposit. The manner in which the news is presented allows for trust to accumulate in the presenter. A good example from the New York Times is this feature by the Upshot: who will win the Senate? It’s a forecasting model. Not only does the Times show its work by linking to the code and data on Github, but it also allows users to create their own forecast. Here, the Times is so confident in its calculations, it allows readers to re-run those calculations and compare what they get to what the Times concluded.
That’s trust-building— unless, of course, you’ve cooked the books. Then it can be devastating. Which is another way of saying: there is risk in being transparent.
2. “We had to make a call. Here is our reasoning.”
A busy news operation is full of judgment calls. That is what editors get paid to do. Wise editors will explain themselves when their judgment is called into question. If they level with the users (readers, viewers, listeners) and lay out their reasoning, they won’t satisfy or convince everyone, but they can at least achieve a “trust neutral” result. Meaning: we can see how the decision was made, even if we do not agree with it.
A good example is Times editor Dean Baquet’s recent decision not to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Lots of disagreement about that. But through the intervention of the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, Baquet had to explain himself, which is good.
Mr. Baquet told me that he started out the day Wednesday convinced that The Times should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression.
He said he had spent “about half of my day” on the question, seeking out the views of senior editors and reaching out to reporters and editors in some of The Times’s international bureaus. They told him they would not feel endangered if The Times reproduced the images, he told me, but he remained concerned about staff safety.
“I sought out a lot of views, and I changed my mind twice,” he said. “It had to be my decision alone.”
Ultimately, he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers. To many of them, he said, depictions of the prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious; those that are meant to mock even more so. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”
“At what point does news value override our standards?” Mr. Baquet asked. “You would have to show the most incendiary images” from the newspaper; and that was something he deemed unacceptable.
Even after this, a great many users are going to find themselves in tension with the New York Times over its judgment call. But they are able to see what the reasoning is. They know it was considered carefully. This I am calling trust neutral. No deposit, no withdrawal.
3. “Look, you’re just going to have to trust us.”
When the newsroom can’t provide the data and tools so that we can re-run the experiment and see what we get, when it can’t explain its reasoning so that even if we disagree we can see where the editors are coming from, when it has to conceal how it came to its conclusions and simply gesture at the complications involved without permitting us to enter into them… under conditions like these, the operation is drawing on deposits of trust put there by earlier acts of journalism that turned out to be trust-worthy.
Two examples from this recent front-page story in the Times:
American counterterrorism officials said on Wednesday that they now believed that Chérif Kouachi, the younger brother, was the aggressor in the attacks — not Saïd Kouachi, the older brother, as they first thought — but that Saïd may also have traveled to Yemen, as American and French authorities have said.
Who are these officials? We don’t know. What evidence leads them to this conclusion? We don’t know. That’s “trust us” journalism. Risky, in a different way.
A member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who spoke to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity, said the joint timing of the two operations was a result of the friendship between Mr. Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers, not of common planning between the Qaeda group and the Islamic State.
Wait: an Al Qaeda source was granted anonymity? How did that happen? From this account we do not know. What makes the Times think this source speaks for Al Qaeda? Again, we don’t know. “Look, you’re just going to have to trust us.” That’s a withdrawal slip.
By operating this way, the Times is drawing on the reserves of trust built up by operating in a more transparent and believable fashion on other occasions. For if we are to trust the account, we have little to go on that is given by the account itself. If it materializes at all, our trust draws on previous reportage by the Times that earned our trust.
I’m not questioning whether the Times has a track record that can be trusted. In many ways it does. I’m trying to point out that some news stories put a heavy strain on the trust I extend to the Times, while others add to that feeling of confidence. Smart editors will avoid putting undue strain on my trust— like when anonymity is extended to sources for trivial reasons.
As it happens, the public editor took a look at this story, as well. And the editors tried to say: “Here is our reasoning.” Standards editor Philip B. Corbett explained:
“It is not as if we are allowing Al Qaeda to spew propaganda or make threats,” Mr. Corbett said. He told me that “the bar is set very high” for using any such information and that it requires particular skepticism and efforts to corroborate.
The bar is set high, but we don’t find out what those special efforts were. So this is “you’re just going to have to trust us…” in slightly different form.
The banking theory of newsroom trust draws attention to the fact that some acts of journalism are easier to trust in than others. The harder you make it for us to trust you, the more likely you are to wind up with a negative balance. The solution is to build up your reserves by operating in a transparent fashion most of the time. In other words: Journalists, show your work.