Building trust…begins with talk about trust — talk combined with action, to be sure, but talk first of all. We are creatures who talk, and therefore we are thinking, reflective creatures. We don’t just avow our trust, we examine it, and we can thereby create and build it.Robert C. Solomon and Fernando Flores, building trust in business, politics, relationships and life, p. 43
You begin building trust by talking about it.
For the last 5 years the conversation about trust and the news media has been largely owned by Donald Trump. He’s been so successful that the term “fake news” is now baked into our society’s ongoing conversation about news and newscasters, showing up unsolicited even in our research exploring what viewers most value in television news anchor talent.
In our most recent study, which was fielded after the election and features in-depth analysis of the language viewers use to talk about anchors, the words “honest” and “trustworthy” combined are mentioned as frequently as any other attribute viewers claim to value. In a March 2020 study, when we asked viewers to rank the qualities that most distinguish the anchor(s) they currently choose to watch, “honest and unbiased” topped the list for every demographic category. That viewers across the board value these things highly is no surprise. That they feel compelled to raise them so persistently suggests that honesty and trustworthiness are not qualities they can take for granted in professional journalists. In an era of fake news and, by association, fake newscasters, it’s a preference they must take pains to state.
Nothing speaks more directly to the success of the fake news narrative than the erosion of trust in media among members of the Republican party. According to Gallup, “party affiliation remains the key predictor of attitudes about the news media. Republicans express more negative sentiments on every aspect of media performance compared to Democrats and independents.” (Gallup and Knight Foundation, 2020. American Views 2020: Trust, Media and Democracy). Trump has sown seeds of distrust in the media, and they have taken deep root.
If there is any hope of narrowing the tribal divide that’s growing in America, effectively countering the fake news media narrative — somehow sowing trust in place of distrust — will be a critical factor. And if Solomon and Flores are right about the origins of trust, journalists will have to join the conversation and stand in it as powerfully for their own trustworthiness as Trump stood for the notion of fake news from the bully pulpit of the presidency.
On an organizational level, this may mean more messaging like CNN’s “Facts First” campaign, which was perhaps most noteworthy because it took direct aim at a conversation that Trump and Fox News had largely had to themselves. “Fair and Balanced,” the Fox network’s rallying cry for years, was meant to imply that other-than-Fox sources of news and information had sinister intent and could not be trusted. “Fake News” was a more direct assault, and Trump largely had his way with it until messages like “Facts First” arrived on the playground and took the conversational bullying head-on.
For anchors and reporters, it may mean taking a wholehearted and unapologetic stand for the ways you manage fairness and objectivity — as CNN’s Alisyn Camerota did in a recent New Day segment.
Camerota answers accusations that protestors were being ignored by detailing the effort that CNN and other new organizations have made to give all sides a fair and proper voice — and by making it clear she won’t be cowed or bullied. However you feel about what she has to say, she’s doing the trust-building work of adding her voice to the conversation. In the process, she’s giving those willing to listen a story to counter the fake news narrative.
The conversation does not have to be editorial. A few years ago, local television news consultants began touting “process reporting,” encouraging reporters to showcase the process of reporting along with the reporting itself. Their argument was that viewers were as interested in the how as they were the what, and that pulling the curtain back would boost viewer appreciation for the effort news departments were making. The fake news conversation has raised the stakes, and today the argument might be that being explicit about the news-gathering process is essential to countering that false narrative.
It may also be critical that television news talent deliver the news in ways that show they care — not just about the news, but about the people and the communities they serve. Solomon and Flores point out that trust is a matter of relationship, and that caring about the relationship is critical to any hope of earning trust:
Trust is not a matter of mere cognition — that is, of the recognition of the contingencies of the situation and the relationship and its possibilities. Trust also means caring about them. Care is perhaps the most essential ingredient to authentic trust, not only care about the immediate outcome but care about the relationship.Robert C Solomon and Fernando Flores, building trust in business, politics, relationships and life, p. 59
This is mirrored in our own research concerning television news anchors. In March 2020, we asked local news viewers to describe a news anchor they would love watching and want to watch on a regular basis. The attribute they cited more than any other was “community.” A closer look shows that they want talent who are passionate about the community and the people who live there.
We are living in a desperate and divided time, but there may be some glimmer of hope here — and a possibility that local newcasters are in a position to help us all see it. Gallup also reported the numbers of people following news about local issues affecting their communities “very closely” is growing. In other words, more of us are paying close attention to what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. If you can do it a way that reassures us it’s fair, and with a conviction and passion that convinces us you care, you may be in a position to help us all see that there are things to unite us that really are bigger than the ones that divide us.
The best place to start may be a conversation about why we should trust you that’s even more relentless and passionate than the conversation others have been leading about why we shouldn’t.
Barry Nash is founder and Head Coach of Barry Nash & Company. The firm specializes in performance coaching for television news and sports talent.