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Truth, justice and the enemies of the American people

Journalists and judges are in the president’s doghouse because they have questioned his actions. With Trump’s Twitter account calling out news organizations as “enemies of the American people” and the president disparaging the judges who have opposed him, you might think our democracy is crumbling. In fact, it is working as it should to uphold those lofty ideals of truth and justice. Checks and balances. The judiciary and the fourth estate.

In the world of journalism, our jobs are not getting any easier, though. Trump has proven time and again that if he repeats something often enough, an unfortunate number of people will believe him, even if what he says is false. So, how do we distinguish what we do as true? How do we build trust among our audience?

One of the ways we can build trust is through transparency with our readers. We can help them understand how we reached certain conclusions, why we decided to run a controversial photo or why we decided to focus on a topic.

The need for transparency is especially great when a news organization makes a decision that could be called into question, those ethical gray areas. For example, most news organizations don’t report suicides. But there are exceptions: when a public figure is involved or when it takes place in public. Be sure to explain to readers why you’re doing something you wouldn’t normally do in those ethical situations.

You can also find ways to “show your work” — as my math teachers used to say — in any situation. Here are a few examples of taking opportunities to explain the hows and whys of your coverage to your readers, thereby building trust with your audience.

Video explainer of approach to big story

When Caterpillar announced it was moving its headquarters from Peoria to Chicago, the Journal Star broke the news, published an extra edition and did a video that explained the coverage and the importance of the local newspaper and website to post quickly, get things right and give people a depth of information they would only find in the Journal Star and on pjstar.com. As reporter Matt Buedel said in the video:

Click for video.

“Absolutely we still have a role to play in providing verified information. In spite of recent developments and all of the buzzwords about alternative facts and fake news, I think the hunger for verified information is stronger than it’s ever been.”

TRANSPARENCY: The video took readers behind the scenes to show why they made a decision to do the extra edition and how important their work is to Peoria residents.

Column on community outreach

Community outreach positions your publication to be the thought leader in your community. Pam Sander, editor of the StarNews in Wilmington, North Carolina, explained that to readers in a front-page column about an initiative called Community Conversations.

Citing data about public schools, safety in neighborhoods and a recent rally, Sander identified the topic for the first conversation: race. From her column:

“Real community journalism and real community conversations are more important than ever.”

TRANSPARENCY: Sander explained why the newsroom chose race as the first topic.

Breakout on approach to analysis

Immediately after the election in November, the Galesburg Register-Mail in Illinois looked precinct by precinct and discovered that only one precinct went from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. So, reporters hit the pavement in that area and knocked on doors to find out why.

Click for video.

TRANSPARENCY: In addition to the story, the Register-Mail posted videos from the people they spoke with, and they included a breakout that explained why they chose that one precinct.

Why does it matter to readers how we approach our decision making? When we can explain the hows and whys of our coverage, we help them understand the thought that goes into what we do. As Pam Sander said in her column: “We work all hours of the day and night, 365 days a year, to cover this community.”

If you take the time to help readers understand what you do and why, you may find that they are more likely to believe you, to defend you and to value you and your role in their lives.

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