Only 32 percent of people trust the news. In an era of “fake news,” when just about anyone can start a publishing site, print outlandish claims, and go viral on social media, that’s hardly a surprising stat. It’s also why award-winning journalist Sally Lehrman set up the Trust Project.
Lehrman is also Senior Fellow on Journalism Ethics at Santa Clara University, so trust in the news is dear to her heart. Her project, based at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, has been working with more than 75 news organizations around the world—including the Economist, the Globe and Mail, Mic, the Washington Post, the BBC, and the Daily Mail—to come up with ways to help people distinguish between quality journalism and promotional content or misinformation. It’s backed by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Bing, with the tech giants coming together in recognition of their role in helping users make that all-important distinction. In the words of the project itself, the consortium is defining both public-facing and technical standards for quality journalism that can be easily recognized anywhere.
But what does that mean for brand publishers, whose content is inherently biased and promotional in some way? Let’s walk through the project, and then apply it to the world of brand journalism.
This project is “an international consortium of news organizations collaborating to create standards of transparency in journalism with the goal of building a more trustworthy and trusted press,” according to the project’s website. It’s all about creating “news with integrity”—news that is “accurate, accountable, and ethically produced”—and helping readers to understand what that means.
“We aim to restore the trusted role of the press in civic life,” says the Trust Project, listing guiding principles adapted from the principles of a free and socially responsible press put forward by the Hutchins Commission in 1947. They strive to provide, among other things, “truthful, verified news and information in a context that gives them meaning” and “forums for civil exchanges and greater understanding of various viewpoints, with fairness in mind.”
The biggest, most visible part of the project is a system of “Trust Indicators” to make it easier to identify trustworthy news, based on dozens of interviews with a “diverse spectrum of public voices.” The indicators are standardized disclosures about the news outlet, the journalist, and the commitments behind a story. Digital platforms can use these indicators and machine-readable signals associated with them to surface trustworthy news to their users.
Image attribution: Naren Morum
The initial eight Trust Indicators are:
What that means in practice depends on the outlet. For example, the UK’s Daily Mirror says their “journalism is not changing” but they have “made it easier for you to find out more about who we are, what we believe in and how we work.”
Key changes on Mirror Online include:
Over in Canada, the Globe and Mail has a dedicated page on the Trust Project, outlining how it identifies itself: “The Globe and Mail has a long-standing tradition of ethical, trustworthy journalism and news coverage in Canada and around the world. The values of truth, accuracy, fairness, and inclusivity are rooted in our work, conduct and Editorial policies. As a trusted news source, we continue to employ the highest standards of integrity and credibility each day.”
A publication’s involvement in the project will not necessarily be shouting from the page; while they can include a “trust mark” on their site, it’s not obligatory. Where you’re more likely to see the efforts is in search or social. Writes Google’s group product manager for search, Jeff Chang, in the Google Blog:
“News publishers embed markup from schema.org into the HTML code of their articles and on their website. When tech platforms like Google crawl the content, we can easily parse out the information (such as Best Practices, Author Info, Citations & References, Type of Work). This works like the ClaimReview schema tag we use for fact-checking articles. Once we’ve done that, we can analyze the information and present it directly to the user in our various products.
“Our next step is to figure out how to display these trust indicators next to articles that may appear on Google News, Google Search, and other Google products where news can be found. Some possible treatments could include using the ‘Type of Work’ indicator to improve the accuracy of article labels in Google News, and indicators such as ‘Best Practices’ and ‘Author Info’ in our Knowledge Panels.”
On Facebook, publishers can upload links to additional information through their Brand Asset Library under their Page Publishing Tools—including information on their ethics policy, corrections policy, fact-checking policy, ownership structure, and masthead. The end result looks a little like this.
Announcing the project, leader Lehrman wrote in the Atlantic:
“The digital world has muddied formerly clear divisions between factual news, sales pitches, hoaxes, and hyper-partisan propaganda designed to incite. On social media and in online search, misinformation spreads with lightning speed [ . . . ] The Trust Project aims to sharpen the picture by using technology to encourage accurate, ethically produced news and make it easy to find. Think along the lines of a nutrition label on a package of food, or a lab report that conveys your health status when you go in for a checkup.”
But brand journalism falls into those categories Lehrman writes about—it is, essentially, designed to increase trust and loyalty towards a brand so that brand can sell more of its products or services. Surely that’s the antithesis of what the Trust Project stands for? Maybe, but I have always been a firm believer in and advocate for using journalistic principles in content marketing. That’s why I think we content marketers can learn a lot from this push for more transparency and trust in journalism.
Image attribution: Raw Pixel
First of all, don’t try to hide the fact that you’re a brand publisher. There was a trend a while ago towards pushing the logo and company name as far into the background as possible; that’s not going to earn you loyalty points. Be open and honest, and your readers will thank you for not pulling the wool over their eyes.
You could also adapt the Trust Indicators to your own publication:
Tell people about your company and why you’re publishing. What is your content mission? What standards do you hold your writers to? This could take the form of an editorial page similar to the Globe and Mail’s.
You must, must, must include author bylines. I don’t say this as a writer who likes to collect bylines, but as a content strategist who knows the authenticity this adds to your content. You could consider author profile pages, similar to the ones seen on content leaders Sage Advice, L’Oreal’s Makeup.com or SAP’s D!gitalist Magazine, but a simple byline (see: Red Bull, Microsoft Stories) does just as well. It helps to raise the profile of your experts and puts a face to the expertise being shared, which engenders much more trust than a “by [brand name]” or even no byline at all.
We know that a variety of content formats helps get your message across and that tags help search rankings. Consider updating your tagging schema to also identify content as opinion, interview, news, feature, sales, and so on.
This one goes without saying. You absolutely must include references and citations in your content, both when the content comes from proprietary research and especially when it does not. If you’re quoting from an interview, embed a link to that person’s LinkedIn or Twitter profile to show they are a real person.
Your methods should be mentioned in the copy. Was this an interview? Based on research you commissioned? On desktop research? Is there a reason you have pursued this story over others? This last question is less simple for brands, but if you can indicate, you should.
Here’s a no-brainer for brands. Use your own experts as much as possible, and show off their local expertise. Create color in your copy by describing the work or the project so people know you’ve been there. After all, great storytelling makes for much more engaging copy.
As the Trust Project says, readers notice when certain voices, ethnicities, or political persuasions are missing. Covering a full range of voices takes on an additional layer in the context of brand publishing. Your experts are not just the C-suite—sometimes Jo Bloggs the machinist has amazing stories to tell with real shop floor color.
Can people subscribe for more? Do they have a way to get in touch with you? While the feedback for brands is unlikely to be “citation needed,” you do need to provide readers a way to get involved and follow what you do. It’s content strategy 101.
So will this move to engender trust negatively impact brand journalism? That’s the big question, but I doubt it. It is clearly and definitely focused on quality news, and brands are still unlikely to be a reader’s main source of news information (no matter how much a strategist may want that to happen). However, there is plenty brand journalists can learn and bring into their own work—especially around the Trust Indicators and their impact on search display. The important thing for brands is to engender trust in readers; being transparent about methods and motives, and highlighting the people creating the content, will go a long way to achieving that holy grail of audience loyalty.
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Featured image attribution: Dimitar Belchev