In the war against disinformation, lies, advertising parading as news and other content that can be deceptive, The Trust Project wants to offer newsrooms and readers alike a better way forward.
“When I first started The Trust Project and we’d go talk to newspapers large and small and broadcast media, there was some resistance. Publishing your ethics policy is normal now, but at the time, it was ‘Well, that’s going to open us up to legal trouble, we’ll be sued if we don’t follow our policies,’” says Sally Lehrman, a Peabody Award-winning journalist and founder and CEO of The Trust Project, a nonprofit global consortium of news organizations.
The core of The Trust Project is pretty straightforward but also vast in its scope: “To amplify journalism’s commitment to transparency, accuracy, inclusion and fairness so that the public can make informed news choices,” according to its website.
Lehrman started the Trust Project while working as a freelance journalist, who also had an academic appointment at a university. “I had been involved in not just doing journalism but working in journalism to hold us to our highest value. The organization that really helped me think about the possibility of changing journalism and doing that work, helping us be our best, was the Society for Professional Journalists,” she says.
Several years and an international group of news outlets and journalists later, The Trust Project now has partner organizations in 10 countries around the world, all of which continue to work together to improve transparency, integrity, ethics and truth in reporting.
It’s not just about fact-checking — there are plenty of fact checking operations that do good work and should be sought out for verification, Lehrman says — but it is about helping readers identify trustworthy outlets and reporters.
“What we’re doing is going back to the principles of what journalism is all about,” Lehrman says. “Giving the public the tools to make their own decisions about this is trustworthy, this is not, based on the things that are most important to them. Based on journalistic values, not just anybody saying here’s a piece of information, you should trust it. I might care a lot about journalistic ethics; maybe you care about that but you care more about ownership. You can look at different indicators and evaluate (an outlet or reporter) according to what matters most to you. You can take it beyond The Trust Project and to any area where you’re looking at information.”
Newsrooms that want to become members of The Trust Project first have to apply to the organization for inclusion.
“They have to get reviewed and there’s a whole process of training a news organization to add the Trust Indicators. We work in cohort. When they come out of that process, we do a compliance check to see whether everything’s there. Then they get to place the Trust mark on their pages, a logo with a ‘T,’ and every article page will have that logo and some words to the effect that we are part of The Trust Project, we adhere to Trust Project principles, or to read our standards. That’s how a user can see.”
The eight Trust Indicators established by the Trust Project, set a code of ethics and practices, uphold core tenets like fairness and accuracy, being transparent about how newsrooms are funded, providing insight on reporting methods and how sources are selected, a commitment to diversifying voices and opportunities for public engagement.
“The vision, originally, was we’re trying to serve the audience and we want to involve them,” Lehrman says. “At the very basic level, one of the Trust Indicators is actionable feedback, getting beyond the idea, can I ask a question, but is the site really listening to me. Every site should be doing things to actually engage and provide a pathway for people to offer concerns to the news partner. Our goal is to make sure, that’s where change should be happening. If they’re not getting a response, then right now they can reach out to us directly and tell us.”