‘Trust Project’ sets standards to help readers assess credibility of journalism

Throughout my career as a newspaper and public radio editor, I always referred to myself as “proud journalist.”  Proud meaning that it was an honor to serve the public by communicating truth – and, yes, holding power accountable. 

But public perception – distrust and even loathing of journalists and their work — has clearly challenged that pride in my chosen profession. 

That’s a big reason why I jumped at the chance to help implement The Trust Project initiative at Investigate Midwest, where I am a member of the board of directors. My experience over the last six months has reinforced my belief that journalists must be willing to question their own assumptions and be transparent even when it’s uncomfortable.

The Trust Project is a global network of news organizations (huge and small) that has developed standards to help readers assess the quality and credibility of journalism. The Trust Project was founded by award-winning journalist Sally Lehrman and is hosted by Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. It is funded by Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Google, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Markkula Foundation.

In the Midwest, you can find the Trust Project’s certification of best practices at Wisconsin Watch and several small rural newspapers. The nonprofit Investigate Midwest earned its Trust Project credentials in March along with a cohort that included the Dallas Free Press and Texas Tribune.

Investigate Midwest, which focuses on big ag, recognized that it needed to be proactive to fortify audience respect for its in-depth reporting.

“We want our readers to know they can trust our work,” said Investigate Midwest Executive Director and Managing Editor Erin Orr. “Readers are bombarded with disinformation and thousands of sources. We hold our newsgathering to the highest standards, so readers can confidently come to our site and see how we operate.”

Even though Investigate Midwest already had thorough fact-checking and correction procedures in place, Trust Project certification meant reviewing and questioning every facet of the organization. That’s difficult to accomplish when you’re also trying to cover the news, so I came in to guide the process. 

The Trust Project hinges on a commitment to a core set of eight Trust Indicators. Here’s how The Trust Project frames the elements for the news consumer: 

  • Best Practices: Do you know who’s behind the news?
  • Journalism Expertise: Who made this?
  • Labels: News, opinion, or what?
  • References: What’s their source?
  • Methods: How as it built?
  • Locally Sourced: Do they know you? Your community?
  • Diverse News: Who’s in the news? Who’s missing?
  • Actionable Feedback: Does this news site listen to me?

Like Investigate Midwest, you might already be able to point to examples of how you provide this information to your audience. The difficulty is ensuring consistency and clarity. That is, building the answers to these questions into the structure of your daily work and requiring a commitment from the staff.

For example, The Trust Project requires that articles be labeled as news, opinion, investigative, sponsored, etc. That means assessing all possibilities and defining them, and then making sense of this for readers. 

On the Best Practices front, Investigate Midwest had to add a corrections page listing all corrections in one place in addition to the policy of a prominent correction at the top of an article.  No journalist likes seeing a list like that. But transparency like this is critical to building trust, Trust Project research shows.

Publishing a list of references (beyond just links within an article) is another addition for Investigate Midwest – one that I love. For an investigative news outlet, this detailed proof of the research trail can be quite profound, and it can also lead to closer examination of sourcing. Building the requirement into a reporters’ work process helps alleviate the tracking burden.

Another side benefit has been the acknowledgement of reporters’ work and credentials through ‘behind the story’ explanations and structured bios that focus on relevant experience and expertise.  

One of the biggest difficulties for us came on the tech side. The Trust Project details means building new elements and links on our Word Press site. And without a developer on staff, this final step became more challenging than expected. 

I was fortunate to be somewhat of an outsider in implementing The Trust Project at Investigate Midwest. I ended up writing an internal policies document for the staff, something that I hope will help them adhere to The Trust Project indicators for years to come.

I would encourage any news organization to evaluate if The Trust Project process would be a fit.  Lehrman says renewed funding from Craig Newmark Philanthropies will allow The Trust Project to’ work with more news outlets. Just be prepared to put in the work from the newsroom to the tech team to the marketing.

You do get an outside coach, which helps keep things moving over the several months from start to finish.

Now that Investigate Midwest transparently shares its trustworthy reporting practices, my overriding feeling is … pride. Pride in my profession, and pride in the journalists who fight for the truth. I’m a little sad that we have to prove it, but maybe that makes us stronger and better for it.

Donna Vestal served as director of content strategy for KCUR 89.3, Kansas City’s public radio station and NPR affiliate, from 2013 through 2019. In 2020, she led America Amplified, a national project intended to bring community engagement into reporting on the 2020 presidential election. She also was the founding editor of Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration of public media stations across the Midwest devoted to agriculture and food issues; and she worked nearly 18 years as an assistant business editor for The Kansas City Star.

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