For BlastingTalks - a series of interviews with business, political, and cultural leaders - we interviewed Sally Lehrman, an award-winning journalist, visiting Science and Justice Professor at UC-Santa Cruz in California, and the Chief Executive and Founder of the Trust Project, a consortium of top news companies from different countries implementing transparency standards to help assess the quality and credibility of Journalism. Lehrman talks with us about the COVID-19 pandemic and how it is reshaping journalism, the mission of the Trust Project, and the future of the consortium.

BN: Social distancing, intermittent lockdowns, and telecommuting: this is the ‘new normal’. We’ll work from home, increasingly remotely, impacting both the way we interact and the way we produce and consume information.

Do you see opportunities or risks for journalists and for the whole industry? Can you list two opportunities and two risks?

SL: For journalists, it is important to talk to people and get their perspective: it is difficult to do so online and it is a challenge for journalists who don’t have strong and diverse networks right now. In order to gather news, you need to talk to different communities with different backgrounds. From a news user standpoint, I think it is harder for people to get out of their own bubbles - while there is an epidemiological term for this, which is to avoid COVID-19 by staying in our family bubbles - we are hoping that people don’t stay in their information bubble, too.

I think that’s a risk. News organizations have to do everything they can to promote awareness of their brands, the news they are producing, and why they are different from other kinds of information. Also the public engagement operations that many newsrooms have are really critical right now - and for those newsrooms that don’t have them, it will be a good idea to think about and pay attention to sites that are doing a really good job with public outreach: in the US, KPCC (Southern California Public Radio) and the Sacramento Bee have strong public engagement programs.

This pandemic directly affects the media industry - with hundreds of layoffs and counting. Do you think it could become a problem regarding the quality of information, especially at local level?

We had several waves of cuts in journalism jobs and we do see major challenges rising from that as journalists try to cover these developing stories with fewer staff.

It is much harder to ensure that you’ve got standards for quality in place and I think that news sites learned that the editing process is critical so you can’t just throw journalism out. It is harder but all the newsrooms that are part of the Trust Project are incredibly committed to getting the story right, so they have standards and practices in place that help to ensure that. For example, having good and strong ethics policies, avoiding conflicts of interest, having strong policies around making corrections when you make a mistake, strong policies around not using unnamed sources except times when they are essential.

Did the pandemic affect or reshape the mission of the Trust Project?

The pandemic just underlined how incredibly important our mission is - because with a pandemic we find a rise in misinformation and rumors, not even necessarily intentional misinformation, as people are scrambling to find out what to do, what the rules are around trying to protect ourselves, what’s happening with the economy.

And so for the Trust Project, it is really important. We see how important what we do is, helping the public understand and be aware of the difference between journalism that is designed to serve the public and organizations that are more oriented around promoting a particular cause, or a particular point of view, or maybe just selling things, which is not bad - but it is different from real journalism. And we need people to know the difference, because journalism is about helping people understand what is going on in their world so they can make their own decisions and not be pushed in one direction or another. We are the only kind of source of information that is built around the public interest.

Can you describe the achievements of the project over the past 3 years and how the consortium has contributed to the journalism ecosystem?

We have just finished doing some interviews with newsrooms about how the Trust Project has affected their work. So we know that the Trust Indicators have an impact on the way people understand the news and whether they trust it or not. There was a study done when we first started by the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin: it was an A/B test but it was randomized, so half of the people that saw one of four stories saw it with the Trust Indicators, and half saw it without. The Center for Media Engagement found that those Trust Indicators, taken together, all enhanced trust in new sites and trust in journalists, and there was a statistically significant difference.

Talking about the present, the sites are telling us that the internal newsroom practices have changed: they are more aware internally and have conversations more often about ensuring that their news is trustworthy. So, people externally are more aware and internally [the Trust Indicators] provide an opportunity to have conversations because ethics is not just a set of principles you put on the wall. It is an ongoing conversation.

Any crisis is an opportunity for transformation. What are you doing to reshape your own business, and make it better, to navigate this unprecedented time? Do you see opportunities?

I wouldn’t say that we have reshaped ourselves, but the pandemic has accelerated some areas we’re already working in.

So I’ll name three. One of them is the huge rise in traffic on news sites, while at the same time we see a drop in advertising because advertisers are concerned about being placed accidentally next to misinformation or even on a news site being placed next to information that may get people upset. So we accelerated our plans to work with advertisers so they know that the Trust Project sites are trusted sites that they can advertise next to. We have been working for a long time with tech platforms like Google, Facebook and Bing; we continue that work and we continue to press forward there.

What about the second and the third...

The other piece is that we see or hear from our news partners that there are a lot of challenges around producing journalism right now and one of the things we have heard is the difficulty of reporting on the street.

Journalists are coming under attack physically and in social media for reporting accurately on COVID-19. We had a couple of conversations with our participating news organizations about safety, connecting them up with the Committee to Protect Journalists, sharing their recommendations out. We also had moderated conversations with experts to talk about ethics in Latin America in covering COVID-19. The third one is around public awareness of the meaning of these Trust Indicators - transparency disclosures around ethics, who journalists are, labeling news (is it news, is it opinion, is it analysis, those kinds of things). We did a public social media campaign that highlighted what questions you might have about a piece of news, who is the journalist behind it or the organization behind it, and then how Trust Indicators can help you answer those questions.

We hope to make the public more aware of these basic standards that can become, and already are, an accepted standard regarding what defines journalism that is responsible and has integrity behind it.

What are the next steps of the Trust Project? Are you working on a particular topic or project you want to share with us?

We are continuing to move forward on the things that we have been already doing: so one is bringing in more new sites to the Trust Project, we have a lot of inquiries, we have two new working groups starting that will implement the Trust Indicators on their news sites. We will continue to do our outreach around that and building new tools to make it easier for news sites to participate.

We are also strengthening our systems around compliance and around application because we are preparing to scale. We have more than 200 sites and that’s a really strong foundation to scale from. We also would like to expand geographically and make it easier for external partners to learn about the sites that are part of the Trust Project.

Do you think that journalism and the Trust Project are important during crises like COVID-19 and the protests against racism we are seeing in the U.S. these days?

A person told me not long ago that the Trust Project was really poised for this year, like all the things we have been doing for the past four years building an awareness of what the public needs and marrying that with journalistic values: those are putting us in a really good position to try to be responsive today.

For instance, in the Black Lives Matter protests, journalism at its best provides an opportunity to the American public to hear from African-Americans who are saying - we are suffering, and we want you to hear our pain, and other people who are saying - we want to support you and we want to change the system to make it more effective. We can uplift the reasons and the principles behind journalism that help people understand why journalism is so important at a time like this. We can also help underline the difference between journalism and the misinformation that is now being promoted around these protests.

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