Ask for audience input (and act on it!)
As journalists, we often feel like we’re getting lots of feedback. Whether through inboxes or comment sections, on the surface, it seems like we’re hearing A LOT from people in our communities.
But a lot of that feedback isn’t particularly helpful, right? Much of it is snarky remarks or accusations that are all too easy to write off or disregard. This week we want to talk about good faith reflections on how well your local news is serving your community. Are you getting enough of that kind of feedback? Are you really understanding whether your community finds your work useful, and if they think you’re covering them in a thoughtful, accurate, inclusive way?
If journalists want to provide the best possible public service to our communities, we have to start regularly asking for our audience’s input (in an authentic, meaningful way). Then we have to use what we hear to shape our coverage.
— Mollie Muchna, Trusting News Project Manager
WHERE TO START
Want to start gathering audience feedback to better shape your coverage? Here are some steps for getting started.
- Figure out which questions to ask. Think about what sort of input would be most helpful to hear from your audience. Perhaps you have questions for a specific part of the community you’re trying to serve better, or maybe you’re curious about a specific topic (like, how does your community feel about the way you’ve been covering the local school district.) Be sure to root your ask for feedback in curiosity about learning how to make your coverage better meet the needs of your community.
- Reach out to your audience. You can insert questions for your audience in any communication you have with them — maybe it’s during an on-air segment, in a social post, in a newsletter, in italics at the top or bottom of a story, in a box next to a story. You have options! Other strategies include crafting a community survey to better understand people’s frustration and confusion around news coverage or conducting one-on-one interviews with people in your community to better understand their perspectives about the news. (We have guidance on how you can do those here.)
- Act on the feedback you hear. It’s great to ask for input and gather ideas from community members. But, asking and then doing nothing is not great. Instead, make a plan for how you’ll act upon the input you hear. Put a journalist or a team in charge of collecting feedback and sharing back with the newsroom. Look for overarching themes, and track any changes your newsroom makes. Most importantly: Follow up with your audience. Thank them for their ideas and tell them if you make any changes based on their thoughts.
- We have a Trust Kit to help: Our new training tool, Trust Kits, offers guidance and strategies for journalists trying to work to build trust. We just published a Trust Kit all about how journalists can thoughtfully ask for (and act upon) audience input. Check it out here.
- Make sure your language isn’t self-serving. Joy Mayer, director of Trusting News, wrote about how requesting feedback and invitations for audience participation can be self-serving and limiting. She suggests journalists stop asking for “feedback” and “story ideas” and offers some alternative invitations and language.
- Consider an engagement ring. Hearken has a great model for engagement they refer to as an “engagement ring” or “listening loop.” It guides news organizations through how they can incorporate user feedback and curiosity through every step of the reporting process. This case study highlights how it worked at a local station, KXLY.
- Collect audience research. The Membership Guide’s audience handbook is a comprehensive, smart look at how news organizations can conduct audience research. We think these tips about conducting a community survey and hosting interviews and focus groups might be helpful to any local newsroom (whether you’re using a membership model or not!)
WHAT OTHERS ARE DOING
- We love this example from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When reporting on a senate race, they tied their coverage to their mission and included an ask for audience questions.
- The Seattle Times put out a request for reader questions about how they do investigative journalism. They ended up receiving dozens of questions and compiled them into an FAQ about the investigative team. They continue to link back to this FAQ when publishing investigative stories online and sharing them on social media.
- Here’s a look at how a local newsroom we worked with used an audience survey to learn about their community’s frustrations and confusion around the news.
Use comments to explain (and defend) your work
Our team at Trusting News could make a long list of how journalists tell us they feel about online comments. It might feel cathartic to do that — who doesn’t love complaining about the insanity or hatefulness of strangers on the Internet?
Yet we also know how important it is to build connections between journalists and the people they aim to serve. We know those connections build trust. We also know one role of journalism is to host community conversations, and hosting takes work.
We like to think of that hosting role as similar to the one you take on if you throw a party at your house. Think about your prep work. Imagine you stock the bar, put on some music and throw open the door. And then you … leave. You hope (assume?) people will be on their best behavior, and you expect to come home to a house that’s still in order.
Ridiculous, right? We count on an event’s host to connect people, gently redirect someone who gets a bit unruly and call someone a cab and send them home if necessary. Everyone appreciates a host who values guest experiences. This is true in online comments as well.
Online comments also represent a rich opportunity for journalists to tell the story of their work, get on the record about their integrity and answer questions about their ethics and process.
– Joy Mayer, Trusting News director
WHERE TO START
Ready to invest a bit of time in the moderation of and participation in online comments? Here are some ideas for how to jump in. Check out our newest Trust Kit on comments for more ideas.
- Choose high-profile opportunities. We know time is tight, so pick some high-profile stories to moderate comments on, where interest is high. Start by clicking “like” on productive comments and looking for chances to thank people for their feedback. That takes very little time.
- Ask follow-up questions. Some commenters will be sharing their experiences or interests and curiosities. That’s a fantastic way that conversation can be an extension of journalism. Prompts like “What else do you want to know about this?” or “Have you seen this in your neighborhood?” can lead to story ideas and sources, and can turn the comments into a productive form of journalism.
- Educate people about your journalism. Because of their informal format, comments can be a great place to drop information and links about how you do your job. Look for chances to answer questions about the reporting and the coverage decisions. Remind people of your mission, your ethics, how you decide what to cover, who’s on your staff …. anything that feels relevant.
- Consider who’s reading (hint: it’s more than who’s writing). Remember you’re responding not just to the person who left a comment, question or complaint but to everyone else reading the thread. If you decline to engage, you are ceding the conversation to the commenters. Do you want people to scroll past an accusation about your work and not find an accompanying rebuttal? Don’t let your detractors have an open season on your credibility. And don’t let earnest, curious community members go unanswered when they inquire about your ethics and processes.
- Have a comment policy. Write a policy that can apply anywhere you’re hosting a conversation. Be clear about what behavior you will allow and what you want to encourage. Post your code of conduct or community guidelines on your website and pin the guidelines to social profiles and groups. Once in place, warn or ban people who blatantly break the rules. Doing so rewards people who follow the rules and it’s a sign of respect toward your commenting community. When people break the rules, use the situation as an opportunity to remind people of your guidelines by reposting or linking to them.
BORROW THIS LANGUAGE
One way we know comments can be key to building trust is when it comes to journalists’ investment in defending their integrity and educating people about how journalism works. The key is to do that without actually sounding defensive or ramping up an argument.
Be mindful of your tone. It can take a deft touch to respond to a cranky and/or uninformed commenter. Try to craft a response that is neither condescending nor defensive but instead takes the high road and assumes good faith. (Even if this specific commenter is not operating in good faith, others on the thread might have a similar version of the same question.) With that in mind, don’t put the staffers who tend toward crankiness and defensiveness in charge of your brand’s response. You want people who actually like other people to moderate comments.
Walk and talk a practice of civility. Model the behavior you want to see. And look for chances to remind people of your goals. One idea: When you delete comments, post a comment with an explanation. You could say something like:
“We know you value civility, and we do too. That’s why our comment policy sets some ground rules (include a link). We’ve banned a few commenters who were making personal attacks, and we’ll continue to keep an eye on things. Thanks to everyone who’s contributing to productive and respectful conversations.”
When you see a complaint in a comment, reframe it as an information gap. If someone incorrectly accuses you of something or makes an incorrect assumption about you, think of it as a sign that the person lacks important information. Reframe the complaint that way, then address it.
Here’s an example.
- COMPLAINT: You’re only writing about this business because you’re out to get them!
- INFORMATION GAP: Why do journalists find it important to write stories that are critical of local businesses?
- RESPONSE: The health department has found repeated violations at this restaurant that are a matter of public safety. As journalists, one of our jobs is to alert the community to how their government is functioning and also to share information that helps keep people safe. We will be sure to also share when these violations are cleared up. Thanks for commenting.
Your goal isn’t necessarily to convince this specific commenter to find your coverage fair. It’s to set the record straight in a public conversation, to everyone who’s listening.
Who are the journalists?
That’s why it’s important for journalists to share who they are with their community. When people don’t know who journalists are and what they do, they make assumptions and most of the time, those assumptions are negative.
Instead of having them assume, tell your community who you are, what has shaped you and what experience you have. Doing this makes you human and relatable. It also can make you credible, respected and trusted.
We know some journalists may feel more comfortable sharing than others, and that’s fine. The key is to help people get to know who’s behind the news. Luckily, there are a lot of ways journalists can share who they are publicly, including staff bios, social media, personal websites, community events, etc. Whatever format it takes, the good news is it doesn’t all have to include the same information or look exactly the same.
– Lynn Walsh, Trusting News Assistant Director
WHERE TO START
We have a Trust Kit to help: Our new training tool, Trust Kits, offers guidance and strategies for journalists trying to work to build trust. We just published a Trust Kit on how journalists can talk about who they are.
Ready to share who you are with your community? Here are some tips to get started:
- Write or update staff bios. Everyone in the newsroom should have an opportunity to share something about who they are. Whether it is a staff bio, a list of staff members or an annual staff photo, everyone in the newsroom (not just on-air talent or the reporters) should be offered an opportunity to participate in showing the public who contributes to your news process — and what their diverse sets of experiences are. Also, make sure they are easy to find once you publish them. Make sure to assign someone to shepherd the project, collect the bios and nudge colleagues to complete it.
- Make sure staff bios include the basics. Include information about the journalist’s role in the newsroom, a photo, previous work/education experience, contact information and any connection to the local community. Are they from the area? Have they previously worked in the area? (If you are reporting in a place where freedom of the press or freedom of speech is threatened we know this may not be possible. Your safety comes first and should be prioritized over including these details.)
- Share staff bios. Once these bios are created they can be added to individual stories, collected on one page (like an “About Us” page), etc. Social media can also be a great place for journalists to share more about themselves and show some personality. One way you can do this is by introducing your staff on platforms designed for interpersonal connection, like Instagram and TikTok. Not only is this helpful for building those connections, but it can also be a good opportunity to share information about how journalists do their job.
For years journalists have been told to leave who they are at home. From an ethical standpoint, this advice is rooted in the importance of avoiding conflicts of interest — or the appearance of one — which can be just as detrimental to being considered a trustworthy news source.
But at the end of the day, connection plays a big role in how much empathy and trust we extend to one another. To make connections and be seen as human beings, it’s OK to talk about who you are. If you’re ready, here are some tips to share a bit more about yourself:
- Go beyond the basics. Sharing some information about how you grew up, what you’ve experienced in your life or what you’re currently interested in or doing outside of work can be an effective way to add some dimension to people’s understanding of your work. It can also lend credibility to your reporting and transparency around what perspectives — and potential biases — people might think you bring to your reporting. Consider sharing some of the following: What you’re passionate about, funny facts about yourself, talents (or what you struggle with), hobbies, organizations you’re involved in or your family (past and present).
- Consider creating reporter mission statements. Rather than letting your audience make assumptions about your agenda, tell them what you’re trying to accomplish. A reporter mission statement can do that by showing users what an individual journalist’s goals are and what they are trying to accomplish. The statement also helps show how a reporter’s mission aligns with the community’s mission. Learn how to turn a staff bio into a reporter mission statement here.
- Be prepared for one-on-one conversations. While out in public, journalists should be prepared for people to ask questions about their work in the newsroom. Look at these interactions as an opportunity to help correct misconceptions and share the value of what journalists do. For more tips on how to earn trust one-on-one with people in your community when you meet them in person, including some examples of how you might respond to common criticisms of journalism, read this Medium post.
WHAT OTHERS ARE DOING
- KPRC created these fun, in-depth staff profiles for each of their anchors. Each bio shares their credentials, but also gives a look at the journalists’ personalities and roles in the community.
- Create a handout about your newsroom or about yourself as a reporter and leave it places or share it at events, like the Iowa Gazette did here.
- Our newsroom partners at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution led their newsroom through a staff bio update. You can see examples of what they created here.
- The Keene Sentinel newsroom had staff members use the newsroom’s branded Instagram account to document what their day-to-day job looked like, sharing everything from getting coffee and checking emails in the morning to going to court to gather documents and going behind the scenes of newsroom planning meetings. Read more about their work here.
Get buy-in for engagement work
We know many journalists want to thoughtfully engage with their communities but often don’t feel like they have the time or the support to do this work. (We know this because we asked the journalists we work with!)
We also know when we talk about building trust, we’re proposing a new way to do journalism that has transparency and engagement strategies at its core. And anytime you ask journalists to change habits and routines, it involves reprioritizing, which means changing organizational values and culture.
Creating shifts and change like that can be so challenging! That’s why in this last edition of our special takeover of this newsletter, we wanted to focus on specific tips and strategies for how journalists can prioritize this work in their newsrooms.
– Mollie Muchna, Trusting News Project Manager
WHERE TO START
We have a Trust Kit to help: Our new training tool, Trust Kits, offers guidance and strategies for journalists trying to work to build trust. We just published a Trust Kit on how journalists can change newsroom culture. Check it out here.
Want to shift your newsroom’s culture around engagement and building trust? Need buy-in for your ideas? Here are five tips for getting started.
- Establish what needs to change and why. Start by articulating clearly what the problem is. Maybe it’s noting that trust in news is low or pointing to specific feedback your newsroom has heard. Then get crystal clear about why what you’re proposing matters. Look at your newsroom’s mission statement and see if you can tie your goals to the overall established purpose. (Bosses tend to appreciate that.)
- Show how the change can help solve problems. Solving your boss’s problems is a good idea. What is she worried or frustrated about? And what frustrates your coworkers? Showing how you can ease colleagues’ workload or alleviate their tension is WAY more compelling than asking them to make time for something just because it’s a good idea. Example: Do they want to reach new, diverse audiences? Point to how doing authentic listening and engagement can build trust and increase users.
- Start with things you can control. Think about what’s within your sphere of influence. What behind-the-scenes information could you start adding to your own stories? How could you be present in responding to user comments? Start by showing what’s possible in ways that might involve getting permission but don’t require other action from colleagues.
- Recruit allies and ignore detractors.Only some people are going to think this work is worthwhile, and that’s okay. Don’t try to convert the cranky colleague. Instead, find collaborators. Focus on them, and let the dissenters be someone else’s problem.
- Give yourself accountability and structure.Think about how you will build time for working on trust, even when it doesn’t tie to your most urgent deadlines. What accountability and structure would be useful? Can you block off 30 minutes a week? Or can you tell your boss that you have a goal of doing something new with one story or one shift a week?
We know how hard it is to squeeze new things into the jam-packed life of a journalist. So, how can you invest in making engagement work more efficient over time? Here are some tips from Trusting News director Joy Mayer.
- Take one-on-one communication public. Think about the time you spend answering emails, having phone conversations and talking to people in person. Then look for chances to share publicly what you’ve already articulated individually.
- Save responses to use again. The best way to build efficiency is to stop crafting the same language over and over. Start a newsroom document where you collect language you use to respond to your community. A Slack channel can also work.
- Turn responses into content. Take those responses and repurpose them as editor’s columns, newsletter sections, social media videos, editor’s notes on stories, etc.
- Form realistic habits that are appropriate for your role. Identify what is within your control and what you hope to accomplish. Comment more on stories? Have better conversations with sources out in the field? Use your own social media to talk about your work? Then set up a system that works for you. (We have tips for how to get buy-in even if you’re not the boss.)
- Make sure the newsroom knows about all of these efforts. Talk about how much time they took, and how much time they saved. Find the right routine (on Slack? In a weekly staff meeting?) to celebrate engagement wins and remind people they’re invited to also share any language you’ve taken public. Remind them how much they can learn from engaging more proactively with the community.
We hope you enjoyed insights from the team at Trusting News! For more advice on building trust, subscribe to Trusting News’ weekly newsletter. Stay tuned for our next Need to Know Special Edition on mental health in the newsroom.