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27 What Makes a Trustworthy News Source?

Experts have looked extensively at what sorts of qualities in a news source tend to result in fair and accurate coverage. At the Trust Project, a team of experts were able to whittle down the markers of trustworthiness in a source down to eight categories:

  • Best Practices: What are your standards? Who funds the news outlet? What is the outlet’s mission? Plus commitments to ethics, diverse voices, accuracy, making corrections and other standards.
  • Author/Reporter Expertise: Who made this? Details about the journalist, including their expertise and other stories they have worked on.
  • Type of Work: What is this? Labels to distinguish opinion, analysis and advertiser (or sponsored) content from news reports.
  • Citations and References: For investigative or in-depth stories, access to the sources behind the facts and assertions.
  • Methods: Also for in-depth stories, information about why reporters chose to pursue a story and how they went about the process.
  • Locally Sourced? Lets you know when the story has local origin or expertise. Was the reporting done on the scene, with deep knowledge about the local situation or community?
  • Diverse Voices: A newsroom’s efforts and commitment to bringing in diverse perspectives.  Readers noticed when certain voices, ethnicities, or political persuasions were missing.
  • Actionable Feedback: A newsroom’s efforts to engage the public’s help in setting coverage priorities, contributing to the reporting process, ensuring accuracy and other areas. Readers want to participate and provide feedback that might alter or expand a story.

This is a great set of indicators, but a bit hard to remember. So we can look at a smaller, related set:

  • Machinery of care: good news sources have significant processes and resources dedicated to promoting accuracy, and correcting error.
  • Transparency: good news sources clearly mark opinion columns as opinion, disclose conflicts of interest,  indicate in stories where information was obtained and how it was verified, and provide links to sources.
  • Expertise: good news sources hire reporters with reporting or area expertise, who have been educated in the processes of ethical journalism. Where new writers with other expertise are brought in, they are educated by the organization.
  • Agenda: the primary mission of a good news source is to inform its readers, not elect Democrats, promote tax cuts, or reform schools. You should absolutely read writers with activist missions like these, but do not treat them as “pure” news sources.

Here’s an important tip: approach agenda last. It’s easy to see bias in people you disagree with, and hard to see bias in people you agree with. But bias isn’t agenda. Bias is about how people see things; agenda is about what the news source is set up to do. A site that clearly marks opinion columns as opinion, employs dozens of fact-checkers, takes care to be transparent about sources and methods and conflicts of interest, and hires professional reporters is less likely to be driven by political agenda than a site that does not do those things. And this holds even if they reporters themselves may have personal bias. Good process and news culture goes a long way to mitigating personal bias.

Still, you may see some level of these things and still have doubt. If the first three indicators don’t settle the question for you, you should consider agenda. Is the source connected to political party leadership? Funded by oil companies? Have the owners made comments about what they are trying to achieve with their publication, and are those ends about specific social or political change or about creating a more informed public?

Again, we cannot stress enough — you should read things by people with political agendas. It’s an important part of your news diet. But when sourcing a fact or a statistic, agenda can get in the way, and you’d want to find a less agenda-driven source if possible.

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What Makes a Trustworthy News Source? by Michael A. Caulfield is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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