A tale of two Trust Projects

Once a year at the Citizen, usually on a Sunday, we’d let readers into the newsroom. It was part of the citywide Open Doors programme, and we would strongarm a few editors and junior reporters into working a weekend shift that involved giving a gaggle of news fiends (well, mostly retirees and maybe some parents dragging their kids) a quick tour of the newsroom and the presses and a spiel about how they do their job, how the front page of the paper comes together, and so on. I always dreaded it, but when I did it, I always had fun. People were genuinely interested in this sort of stuff, and it is always fun to talk about how the news gets made.

I should have taken a lesson from these things, but I didn’t. One of the bigger regrets I have from my time as an editor at the Ottawa Citizen was that I didn’t make more of an effort to build trust with readers. From responding promptly and adequately to reader queries to putting in place better error correction procedures to simply being more transparent about what we were trying to do and being open about our failures, it’s an aspect of the job to which I did not commit enough political capital.

And I regret it partly because it would have been good to do regardless, but also because the further we go down the path of news delivery via platform, the more it is clear that the mainstream media’s unique selling proposition is going to be trust. 

Which is why it’s good to see that two of the biggest newspapers in the country, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, have both made (re)building trust with readers centrepieces of their content strategies. Back in May, through its public editor Kathy English, the Star launched its Trust Project, striking an internal committee and inviting readers to address the question of what the Star should do to create a stronger bond of trust with its readers. And just last week, the Globe and Mail announced that it had signed on as the first Canadian partner of The Trust Project, joining an international consortium of publishers, platforms, and academic partners.

Yet despite having basically the same title, the two projects are quite different in who they are targeting and how they are being executed.

The Star’s trust project is essentially a hopped-up version of the annual weekend tours we used to give at the Citizen. In a long and growing list of stories, the Star takes readers through the mechanics of how the news gets made, and provides some transparency on the decision-making process that goes into things like correcting errors or deciding when to publish breaking news. Want to know what the editorial board does? Wonder how the film and restaurant critics conceive of their job? Interested in hearing how the front page comes together? The Star has little primers on all of these and more, and it supplements the work that Kathy English herself is doing through her column. It’s all collected here, and it all looks pretty interesting and well done.

For its part the Globe isn’t that interested in letting you see the wizardry that’s going on behind the curtain (though it should be noted that the Globe, too, has a public editor, Sylvia Stead.) Instead, what the Globe and Mail is trying to do is provide a way for its content to survive in a media ecosystem increasingly polluted by fake news, filter bubbles, and whatever random noise the algorithms throw into your content feed.

To do this, the members of the Trust Project consortium are adopting a common set of standards that will let both readers and machines identity trustworthy journalism:

These standards combine a required set of content, user-experience features and story tags (code markup) into a set of “indicators” featured in articles, pages and descriptions on the website. Trust Indicators provide more information for the reader about the type of article they are reading, author information and expertise, and company information such as ownership, contacts, editorial policies and best practices in greater detail.

I think this is a very promising line of attack. In fact, it’s pretty much what I endorsed in a piece I wrote for Policy Options last winter about how to fix the problem of fake news. The genius of it lies in the fact that adherence to trust indicators can be embedded in a story’s meta-data, which can then be picked up by filters at any level of distribution or consumption – search engines, social media platforms, apps or browsers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this meta-data can be identified and used by advertisers or ad-serving networks, which adds a very powerful pressure point to the mix.

For the most part, the Star and the Globe are focusing on distinct problems. The Star is looking to solve the problem of reader disengagement and disaffection, in a time when the media landscape is fragmenting and the traditional editorial (i.e. gatekeeper) function of the mainstream media is seen as not just suspect, but entirely bankrupt. In a lot of ways, they are trying to solve the same sorts of problems the CBC is looking to solve with its revamped version of The National.

In contrast, the Globe is clearly looking for a way to position its content for survival in the era of Platforms of Babel by giving it the digital thumbprint of trustworthiness and credibility. It’s less about telling readers how the food writer goes about trashing the hot new restaurant downtown, more about signalling to the algorithm that the food critic is a paid professional journalist subject to editorial oversight and fact checking, and not some Yelped-up failed chef with an axe to grind writing under a pseudonym.

These are both excellent initiatives. If I had to pick, I’d say the Globe’s is more purpose-built for the challenges ahead, though as I said, I wish I’d tried harder to do more of what the Star is doing when I was an editor. Of course, there’s no reason why both outlets can’t do both. They each have something to learn from the other’s trust project.


A tale of two Trust Projects — 7 Comments

  1. During the summer, I set up “outdoor office” in the main downtown plaza. I take out my computer, my report reading, and work on my journalism.

    I rotate around the city, major parks, small parkettes. Often, I’m just reading a book on a bench (some places just don’t work for laptops).

    I make myself accessible to people, and I’m also pleasantly surprised by how many conversations I get to engage in.

    Being present *in* the community nudges trust in a positive direction. An additional bonus is that people see I’m doing the work they expect – reading reports and keeping an eye on City Hall.

    And yes, there are people who sit down across from me to express their frustration at my journalism or just journalism in general. There are people who make me uncomfortable, or take up my time on their neighbourhood fence line dispute.

    This is the world, and it’s very healthy for me to get out of my office (newsroom) bubble. I learn a lot each summer, and I also build a great deal of trust with the people of my city, the very people I need to have trust with to find out what is truly happening.

  2. Suppose that you want to do some online banking. If your bank has implemented their website correctly, your browser (or app) will tell you that you have an encrypted connection to an entity associated with a particular certificate, and if you trust the issuer of that certificate (and if the issuer says that the entity is your bank), you know that you really are talking to your bank. It is not possible for your browser to tell you whether you can trust your bank – that’s up to you. (Though you know, if you don’t you should maybe choose a different bank.)

    “If I had to pick, I’d say the Globe’s is more purpose-built for the challenges ahead”

    Maybe you can see where I’m going with this? I clicked through to the Globe’s Trust Project page, and, in keeping with their MO, it tells me what the project is supposed to achieve but not how it will be achieved. It takes for granted that I should just trust that what they actually do will do what they say it will do. But I know what is logically possible. The Globe is free to attach a piece of metadata to a news item that says “Yes! This is REAL NEWS! You can totally trust this!”, but so can any Russian bot. In the best case, assuming the initiative makes no technical mistakes, the most that can be achieved is that the metadata can be cryptographically signed so that I know that 1) the metadata really belongs to the news item it is attached to and 2) it really originates with the Globe and Mail.

    But can I really trust the source? That is the question which Globe and Mail is begging and the Star is not (again, true to form. Disclosure: I’m a paid up subscriber to the Globe but not the Star; maybe I should rethink that.) I hope by now that it is clear to you that the problem the Star is trying to solve has logical primacy. I can always go directly to the Star’s own website (or just buy a paper copy in a shop, which theoretically could be counterfeited, but, come on.) So if I trust the Star, I’m good.

    The metadata is only important if I get the Globe story from some other source. But if I’m not a Torontonian, and I’ve never heard of the Globe, how would that help me? I would need a “trusted news signing authority.” But how would I know to trust this authority unless it went through a procedure analogous to the Star’s? And how could it go through that procedure unless the Globe did the same?

    • I would suggest that this is precisely the distinction between the Globe’s trust project and the Star’s.

  3. It seems to me that the Globe’s project is somewhat beside the real point, which is that many readers (myself included) no longer believe that paid professionalism overseen by large “respectable” corporations have any bearing on whether the truth is being told. Quite simply, on any politically charged issue these outlets very often flat out lie and at a minimum systematically omit certain sides and perspectives.
    An awful lot of people have some area or other in which they are experts, and I have noticed that basically apolitical people who know about things as apparently neutral as networking technology or computer games will consistently say that the media spins issues relating to their areas of expertise, obscuring the truth; often they deduce that there are reasons relating to the interests of the richest players in whatever field it is. Up until recently, most would not extend their skepticism about their particular expertise to media content in general, but that reluctance to doubt is fading.

    Let me give an example. Over the last few years any shreds of confidence I might have still had that the likes of the Globe or the New York Times would not typically stoop to simple, direct falsehood have been obliterated by the coverage of Venezuela. I follow Venezuela carefully and have done so for about 15 years now, and through that whole time large corporate media outlets have consistently said the near opposite of the truth. For those who don’t know, Venezuela is a democratic country whose elections are consistently found by observers to be free and fair; its electoral mechanics are perhaps the closest to unriggable in the world and extremely transparent, far better than the US and even somewhat better than the Canadian system. Its leaders are elected and have consistently respected the results of elections. Elections in Venezuela are so frequent as to be near constant. Its reaction to violent protest involving such things as the murder of national guards has been far milder than the equivalent would be in the US, Britain or Canada. Political opponents repeatedly call for the violent ouster of the president on leading television stations and newspapers without penalty. In short, Venezuela is one of the most democratic countries in the world, much less Latin America. And yet the press and television news repeatedly call the president of Venezuela a “dictator”, represent the country as authoritarian, as cracking down unwarrantedly on protest, as eliminating free speech. It is an inversion of reality, and that before we even get to the careful ignoring of all the illegal interference in Venezuelan politics by the United States, to the tune of millions of dollars a year invested in anti-government political parties and evidence of significant US involvement in promoting violence.
    Sorry if I’ve been long winded. The point is, if I didn’t know a lot about Venezuela because I’ve been paying close attention for a long time, I would assume that the united chorus of mainstream media saying Venezuela is a vicious oppressive dictatorship must be true. I would be completely misled. And there are a number of other cases where I know enough about a topic to realize that the distortions are gross and systematic. But there are a lot of other areas I don’t know as much about. I would be a fool to assume that although the news often turns out to be false where I know the truth, it is always true in those areas about which I am ignorant. If I go around believing what the Globe tells me by default because it has a nice digitial thumbprint telling me it’s the establishment, how many more lies will I swallow?

    If the mainstream media wishes to be trusted, how about an initiative towards basic conformance with facts and/or the dictionary meanings of words, like not claiming elected presidents are dictators? A retreat from systematically slanted language might be nice too. For instance, why is it that our designated enemies always have “regimes” while our designated friends, even if they’re vicious bloodthirsty dictators like the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, don’t but instead lead countries? Why doesn’t Mohammad bin Salman get a “regime”?

    Yeah. Want trust? They should try being trustworthy.