A (brief) banking theory of newsroom trust.

The less help you give me in the tricky act of extending my trust to you, the more likely you are to wind up with a negative balance.

16 Jan 2015 7:11 pm 14 Comments

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.


I’m just wondering if there is an important distinction that ought to be made between the banking of trust and the banking of consent. That is, the role of the unthought and the unthinkable in contemporary journalism. For example, the reporting and editorial legacy of the Times in regards to both economics affairs and the issue of Palestine upon which it builds consent but vitiates trust. If the Times were all of a sudden start reporting the influence patent monopolies play in drug costs and various alternatives that would both preserve advanced research opportunities and reduce the over-all costs of Health Care- after having neglected that aspect of the issues for years- that would certainly bank as trust for many readers but challenge the consent of others. In other words theory is one thing, the challenges of editorial direction and publisher preferences that journalist face every day in the newsroom is another.In many cases their most trustworthy efforts are the books they write about their adventures after they have changes jobs or retired and can safely disclose the banking protocols under which they actually operated

I think there is something to what you’re driving at— if I understand it.

Let’s switch it over to the Wall Street Journal for a moment. Say the Journal has been noticeably cooler and more skeptical about global warming news than other news sources. Over time, this commitment to a certain story line builds up. Present reports gain an “investment” in continuing to confirm previous reports, because to suddenly switch and accept that the evidence for global warming is pretty definitive at this point would cast doubt on all the years of more skeptical reception. That’s banking, but in a different way.

Terrific insight, Professor Rosen. Your commenter is also insightful re: ‘consent’. The social science concept of ‘framing’ is useful in terms of overall understanding of news and much else. If you frame your understanding of Federal Government actions on the basis of Reagan’s ‘good government is small government’, you write one kind of news story. If you instead inform your reporting within the frame that ‘good government serves the greatest number of people most effectively’, you write a very different news story using the same facts. Transparency really helps to figure out what underlying, usually very widespread belief system informs news writing. For example, ‘all deficits are bad’, if one thinks government functions like a household, is so amazingly widespread in journalism that you really have to hunt for the factual information to the contrary. Because it’s outside the standard ‘frame’.

Jay, this might or might not be on point, but I’m reminded of the work of Phil Meyer at UNC (now retired), who found that about 80% of the market value of a newspaper is what the accountants call “good will,” the habit the community has of finding the paper an honest broker of news, information, and dialogue, and the accompanying trust the community has in the paper as an advertising vehicle. It would seem to me that making too many trust withdrawals equates to spending good will, with direct and negative impact on the paper’s market value.

Right. That’s what I am trying to say. Some reports spend from the goodwill account. Others deposit.

Martling says:

…. sorry, but:

“The banking theory of newsroom trust” seems strained. Everybody already understands what the terms trust & credibility mean, even regarding journalism. Building trust is not a new nor difficult concept in human culture. And that “banking theory” absolutely does not “… draw attention to the fact that some acts of journalism are easier to trust in than others.”

Your last sentence should have been your first IMO.

| “There is no urge so great as for one man to edit another man’s work”
– Samuel Clemens |

Everybody already understands what the terms trust & credibility mean…

Damn! Sorry. I slipped up. I guess I should not have written this at all. I will try to do better next time and remember to shut up. My bad.

Joe Saylor says:

I would argue there is a problem with this model. The problem is that it may work for press watchdogs and a vanishing percentage of news consumers, but it does not work for most news consumers. For most, deposits and debits from the trust bank are made based on how the presentation of the news and associated facts conform to the consumer’s existing ideology.

Richard Aubrey says:

It would have been better for the NYT’s public editor to include examples of sensitivity to the Christian, or Jewish, or Mormon readers, just to show fair and equitable treatment. That would prove the contention and make it clear that the whole thing wasn’t about fear of violence or fear of being accused of islamophobia. Otherwise, this reasoning could be a major withdrawal.

Excellent article, Professor Rosen. As mentioned on Twitter, we operate in a state that is largely controlled by one newspaper company with 5 separate properties. After doing a little research, the editors were all working separately, but under the same direction from higher up. It’s a national newspaper chain.

They’ve used up all their goodwill and their bank is in the negative, primarily because they honestly want readers/subscribers to believe they are neutral. However, their neutral is really the “trust us” category of the banking model. Most of the reporters remaining, write from an authoritative reference, but they have no credibility.

Your banking model explains their dying on the vine perfectly – you can only expect readers to operate with a negative balance for so long. At a certain negative, readers will abandon you altogether. It becomes, “Not only don’t we trust you, we don’t even believe you!”

Thanks again for this perspective.

An alternate metaphor for the system described here (rising and falling reserves in a bank account) would be an hydraulic one (rising and falling levels of fluid in a closed system of pipes). The hydraulic metaphor would usefully dramatize the catastrophic failure alluded to at the end of the first example: “…unless, of course, you’ve cooked the books. Then it can be devastating…” The Texas Air National Guard story in 2004 at 60 Minutes II could be seen as an example of the catastrophic consequence of the books being exposed as cooked. The pipes at CBS News just burst and were no longer able to hold any liquid; alternately, the account went bankrupt.

Except, of course, the system at CBS News did not collapse. Dan Rather was thrown overboard and management was shaken up. CBS News was permanently discredited with a segment of the news-watching public — but only with a segment. It turns out that those who lost faith were those who were already predisposed to distrust CBS News. The TANG fiasco turned out to be only the final example of the elitist east-coast liberals of the Tiffany Network provoking the outrage of the partisan Republicans of the heartland. Thus Rather acted as the heir to the Joe-McCarthy-baiting Murrow and the William-Westmoreland-blaming CBS News Reports.

The important distinction here is between the mechanistic model of “trust” and “credibility” proposed by the banking (or hydraulic) metaphor, and the observation made by Joe Saylor’s comment, namely that for news consumers, trust is “based on how the presentation of the news and associated facts conform to the consumer’s existing ideology.”

In other words, in order to understand how trust is endowed in a journalistic organization, perhaps we need a psychoanalytic metaphor rather than a mechanistic one, a metaphor that accounts for ideas such as representation and identification. Is a news organization faithful to my worldview? Does it articulate my ideology?

Consider that other famous fiasco involving the partisan Republican heartland and Presidential politics: Election Night on FOX News Channel in 2012, when Karl Rove refused to believe the facts in front of his very nose, the facts that his own reporters were telling him. Megyn Kelly had to uncross her long legs from behind the anchor desk to walk down the studio corridor to disabuse Rove of his disbelief. This astonishing event should have been catastrophic. FNC’s pipes should have burst. Its cognitive dissonance was exposed for all to see, attempting to operate as a trustworthy source of reporting and simultaneously as a GOP talking-point echo chamber.

Yet, despite this devastating loss of trust and credibility, FNC’s account did not go bankrupt. Perhaps that was because it was never unfaithful to its viewers’ worldview, even when it was incredible. Perhaps faith trumps trust.

Thanks, Andrew. Lots to think about in this comment.

Richard Aubrey says:

As long as we’re using metaphors, analogies, parables and hyperbole, herewith another possibility:
Cross fertilization. News junkies, or anybody paying attention, knows CBS messed up–that’s a euphemism–on the TANG thing. Lots of people know SOMEBODY messed up, but they’re not sure who. One of the alphabets. My point is that CBS cross-fertilized, so to speak, at least ABC and CBS, in the minds of some not clear on the perp.
In addition, those who see the alphabets as a Thing, similar as three peas in a pod–simile–it makes no difference at all in the withdrawal issue which of the alphabets did it. They’re all like that. And whoever actually did it, the others have done the same or will.
I would say the same, but probably not as certain, about newspapers. You don’t switch from the NYT to the Chicago Tribune with the push of a button and eventually lose track of which you’re reading.

Brian Williams is now officially overdrawn.