March 13, 2017

Sally Lehrman: Rebuilding public trust


Sally Lehrman directs the journalism ethics program at Santa Clara College and its signature Trust Project. She is a longtime evangelist for journalism values and ethics as a local and national leader in the Society of Professional Journalists and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

Watershed Media:  When it comes to identifying/verifying trustworthy news media, what can technology offer us?

Sally Lehrman: Tchnology can come at this issue a number of ways.

At the Trust Project we’re developing tools and technologies to make it easier for the public – and news distribution platforms like Google and Facebook – to find high-quality, ethically produced, accurate news.

As  foundation to developing technologies that support a more trustworthy news ecosystem, we have gone directly to the public and conducted in-depth interviews to understand what the public values in the news, when their trust has been broken, and what might earn it. We’ve conducted 34 ethnographic-style interviews and will continue these in the new year. We’ve then used the insights from these interviews to work with senior editors from news organizations in the US and Europe to develop a set of what we call “Trust Indicators,” which are journalism practices and commitments that can build trust. Examples would be:

  • best practices, such as an ethics policy, diversity policy, corrections and offering ownership information;
  • information about the author;
  • story labels that would indicate news, opinion, analysis and sponsored content.

We have worked with our collaborators to develop prototypes that would present these indicators as visual cues alongside the story, and also create a signal back to news distribution platforms. Now we’re working on building these out. (You can find the prototypes at

There are also projects like First Draft news, which helps news organizations verify user-generated content as real, and fact-checking consortiums that are using technology to support collaboration.

WM: But is it really about technology? What’s the social dimension? How can journalists and news organizations alike demonstrate their own trustworthiness to a cynical public?

SL: A few things that have come up in our interviews with the public but that are often forgotten get to public engagement, diversity and “agenda.” We hear people asking for the opportunity to interact with their news sources — not just through comments, but through offering story ideas, guiding the story, or suggesting sources. Some suggest get-togethers to discuss the news with one another and with editors.

People also often mention wanting to hear perspectives in news stories from people of color, women, and generally those who are not part of the power structures of business and government. They want to hear from people like themselves and unlike themselves.

Regarding agenda, many people say they realize that journalists aim for objectivity and they want to know there’s a code of ethics behind the process, but they also believe that we all have an agenda. So we’ve heard suggestions about providing more detail about funding structure, corporate structure, issues that the news company or reporter sees as a priority, etc. These practices can demonstrate trustworthiness.

WM: What’s the public’s responsibility, or at least position, in this equation? Passive consumers? Engaged social-media user? How does media literacy fit into the picture?

SL: The public does play an important role in the ecosystem of news.

First, people can demand quality news about issues that are relevant to their lives and support those news organizations providing it.

Secondly, they can play an active role sharing trustworthy news and interrupting the spread of poorly sourced or fake news and advertising posing as news. People can follow some basic steps to check what’s behind a story.

We have found in our interviews with members of the public that many people are conscientious news consumers and make a point of giving themselves a well-rounded diet of information from news sources that take on topics from different perspectives.

If you’re not one of these, you can find one among your friends and enjoy the fruits of their labors. And now, as we face so-called alternate facts coming out of the White House, the public can make it clear that disinformation is unacceptable.