Design Your Stories with Transparency: The Trust Project at SNDCLT 2017

Sally Lehrman at SNDCLT 2017, talking about The Trust Project

Last week I had the chance to attend Unite + Rebel, the Society for News Design’s annual conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a wonderful opportunity to engage in conversations about design’s role in journalism and innovations in visual storytelling. Here’s a take-away from one of the workshops I attended.

What is design’s role in building the public’s trust in news? That was the primary question raised by Sally Lehrman of The Trust Project, an organization dedicated to deciphering technology’s role in ensuring trustworthy journalism reaches the public.

Structuring the News Page with Integrity

We know that journalism is distinct from other kinds of information on the web. Signalling that stories are produced with a commitment to transparency and integrity is crucial to building a relationship of trust.

Above is a live prototype from The Trust Project’s design workshop that demonstrates one way newsrooms could potentially integrate transparency within the article page. The prototype shows how you can integrate information like named/un-named sources, corrections, and citations in an easily accessible manner within the story.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

News consumers are not a monolith. To rebuild trust in the news, one must also engage different types of users. Lehrman identified four categories of news readers:

  1. The Avid reader actively curates personally relevant news and spreads it on social media, believing that being uninformed is dangerous.
  2. The Engaged reader believes that news should be an equal opportunity offender: If no news offends you, it isn’t doing its job. These readers seek out quality local news.
  3. The Opportunistic reader thinks that most news is trying to sell a viewpoint or agenda. This reader consumes news in a much more passive manner – scrolling through Facebook, listening to the TV during lunch breaks – as opposed to the Avid or Engaged.
  4. The Angry and Disappointed reader feels disconnected and disappointed with news media and has the least trust in the news.

What Do Readers Want?

After researching different types of news consumers, Lehrman summarized what readers seek from the media.

  • Transparency: To build a trustworthy relationship with your readership, you need to share some information about your organization itself. Readers need to understand your positioning and agenda – they want to know why you publish the stories you do.
  • Reliable Reporters: Readers need to have confidence in the person telling the story, and they want to know about a reporter’s history, expertise, and biases.
  • Variety of Perspectives: While the general public frequently gravitate toward stories that reinforce their own worldviews, readers recognize that stories with multiple perspectives are more trustworthy. It’s important for readers to know why the story is relevant to them and to understand how their communities are affected.
  • Credible Sources: Readers check for the source of information to verify if a story is authentic. They want to know where the information is coming from and why those sources were chosen.
  • Participation: Readers want to be included in the process and make their opinions heard.

Trust Indicators

With these needs in mind, what can news organizations provide? Lehrman identified eight actionable trust indicators. These were defined through the Trust Project’s collaborative workshops with over seventy news organizations and around one hundred and fifty people.

  • Best Practices: Provide resources like an ethics policy behind your organization and word choice explanations. An example might be explaining why your organization uses the word “migrant” over “immigrant.”
  • Author Expertise/ID: Provide details about the reporter, share background information about their expertise, and acknowledge any biases they have. Let readers know who the author is and show them information about other projects the author has produced. A simple way to do this is having the byline be linked to an author and story archive.
  • Label Story Type: Clearly identify different types of content to distinguish reports from opinion.
  • Citations and References: Give readers access to the sources and facts. Include the reasoning behind why they were chosen.
  • Methodology: Readers want to know how the story was created and what editorial choices were made. Tell the story behind the story.
  • Location/Local: News can have a greater impact on communities if readers know which stories are local to them.
  • Diverse Voices: Prioritize diverse viewpoints, and pay attention of which voices are included or missing from the story. Include viewpoints from multiple political or ideological perspectives, and make a point to include perspectives from women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups.
  • Actionable Feedback: Foster participation after publication by creating a space for dialogue for the reader to contribute to the story. Let readers reach out to the story’s producers and share their opinion. An example could be a Slack channel letting readers chat directly with editors and authors.

The Trust Mark

Providing these indicators on the story page is a challenge – how can we make this information easily accessible to the reader but not be overwhelming? One possible solution is placing a “Trust Mark” on the story page. The mark would signal that the story was produced with quality and transparency. Readers would be able to click on the mark to see the different trust indicators.

Questions, Questions, and More Questions

The end of the workshop was opened to the audience for suggestions, reactions, and ideas. Some of the topics raised included:

How effective is the trust mark? If people already don’t trust the news, will a trust mark do anything to change their opinion? Fake news sites are implementing increasingly sophisticated designs on their homepages, making the distinction between real news and fake news even harder. What’s to prevent them from creating their own badge of legitimacy?

How do we increase news literacy? Building a relationship with your readers requires that people read more and develop skills for discernment. How can we educate the public on these skills?

And the big question...

How do we spread real news? Publishers frequently focus on producing news rather than circulating it. It can be a challenge to encourage real news to spread across the ideological bubbles perpetuated by social media, but The Trust Project is providing actionable solutions to help newsrooms foster deeper audience engagement and highlight the competency, ethics and dependability of their work.