Build Trust Through Your Storytelling Process

News distrust is a widespread and difficult problem to tackle – but there are steps newsrooms can take to build trust with their local communities. Gathered through numerous studies, the Center for Media Engagement has identified five actions newsrooms can take to improve trust.

Explain Your Reporting Process

  • Write a description of how and why the story was reported
  • Make it clear why the explanation is being provided
  • Include where reporters gathered information and how they took steps to be fair
  • Make sure the information is highly visible

Our research suggests that one way to build trust is to help audiences understand why a story is being done and why certain story choices are being made. This can be addressed within the story narrative by adding an introduction with an explanation. It’s important to make sure, however, that explanatory elements provide value and context and don’t just add length to the story.

Another approach is to utilize a box that lays out how and why a news organization chose to do a story. The box can include information like where reporters gathered information and how they took steps to be fair. Reporters should already have the information from the news-gathering process, making it a fast and easy addition to a story. In testing this approach, however, we found that the information needs to be highly visible to have an effect.

Use a Variety of Sources

  • Diversify sources and avoid relying on the same few people
  • Refrain from focusing only on people with extreme views
  • Explain choices –  clarify why certain voices were left out or unavailable
  • State lack of relationship with sources

In several of our studies, especially those where we spoke with members of communities that are often underrepresented in news stories, source diversity was an important factor in building trust. Rather than relying on the same few community members to provide soundbites, journalists should develop multiple sources in the area connect with sources who have firsthand knowledge of the issue (see more on this in our solidarity reporting guide).

It’s also helpful to explain why certain voices were chosen and others were left out. News audiences don’t have an inside look at your reporting process and may question decisions to include or exclude specific voices – an issue that can be perceived as imbalanced reporting. One study found that it may be helpful to guard against perceived bias is by providing a statement of independence that makes it clear you have no relationship with story sources.

Provide a Complete Story

  • Add context, give background information, and link to previous coverage
  • Explain key terminology and government or police processes
  • Place story labels (news, analysis, opinion) in a highly visible location
  • Include footnotes in the article text that offer source material

When we asked people what they want from news stories, a common theme was a desire for reporters to fully explore all aspects of the story. This might include explaining background information, providing context beyond the facts of the latest update, and taking an investigative approach whenever possible.

People also wanted reporters to explain terminology – this applies to journalistic terms and procedures as well as to terms related to the industries discussed in a story.

Additionally, consider rounding out stories by adding other trust-boosting items like story labels and footnotes.

Be Aware of Your Phrasing

  • Be fair and consistent in coverage of local communities
  • Use neutral language when describing contentious situations
  • Be cautious of the way you label people in your stories

People in underserved communities often feel that their communities aren’t covered fairly. To address this issue, journalists should take steps to ensure that certain communities aren’t covered differently than others. People we spoke with suggested using neutral language – avoiding descriptions that might be subjective or evoke certain emotions – while covering contentious situations.

Our research has also shown that the labels journalists use to describe communities, especially those that are often marginalized, have the power to shape opinions. We found that using person-centered language can foster trust and help news organizations better connect with stigmatized groups.

Think Beyond the Story

  • Encourage audience participation at the conclusion of the story
  • Provide reporter bios – and consider adding personal details
  • Build community relationships
  • Correct mistakes promptly

Building trust extends beyond the story. A simple way to keep people engaged is to encourage audience participation or provide additional resources at the conclusion of the story. Reporters can also help build connections with readers by providing bios with a personal photo and personal details – but it’s important to combine bios with additional strategies to actually increase trust.

Outside of the newsroom, journalists should get to know their communities and develop relationships with community members and organizations.  This is especially important in building trust with underserved communities. By developing deeper relationships within the community, journalists will become more aware of potential stories, including those that lift up residents.

Finally, mistakes happen, but our research indicates that owning up to them and fixing them promptly is a way to build trust.

For quick reference, download the pdf version of these tips and check out more Center for Media Engagement Quick Tips for ideas on how to break down our research findings into simple, actionable steps.