Dan McGowan (@danmcgowan): News Editor, GoLocalProv.com
Tim Murphy (@politifactri): Assistant Managing Editor, Public Policy Desk, Providence Journal; Editor, Politifact RI
David Scharfenberg (@d_scharfenberg): News Editor, Providence Phoenix
Erika Niedowski (@eniedowski): Reporter, Associated Press, Providence Bureau
Ian Donnis (@IanDon): Political Reporter, Rhode Island Public Radio
Ted Nesi (@tednesi): Digital Reporter, WPRI
Tim White (@white_tim): Investigative Reporter, WPRI
John T: Everyone in this room clearly has some regard for Politifact and thinks it's doing a valuable service, but now we've reached the point in an election year where there’s this backlash. We won't point fingers at any one side, but a lot of people are saying, “Politifact's already been widely discredited as biased.” People are going to their opinion-based sources to bolster their particular worldviews. How do you guys get out there and say, “We do our homework. Regardless of what you think of it, regardless of what media we use, what we do is verifiable, it's credible, it's important and, in one form or another, it's worth paying for.” How do you maintain that message nowadays?
Tim M: I think that the most important thing is to make it clear in both our minds and our leaders' minds that we are about the journalism of verification, not assertion. It's easy, especially in the hyper-competitive, rapidly paced online world, to assert things that haven't been verified, because you think or you've heard; that's dangerous for us. We have to be all about verification and transparency. “Here are our sources, here's who we talked to, here's what they said.” Not, “Here's what I think about this” – unless you happen to be an opinion writer or columnist – but, “Here's what I can verify.” Just make that our creed.
Ian D: Yeah, facts matter and I think there has been a trend toward a lot more opinion in the information that goes out to people. There is a place for thoughtful analysis, but facts really matter.
Ted N: We build trust; it's a long-term project. Every day you try to do your best work, you try to put things forward that you've worked hard to make accurate, you try to make sure you're always challenging your own biases, you're making sure to keep a diverse set of publications and analysts and people you read, so that you're making sure you don't end up in a bubble that you created for yourself almost unknowingly. I've certainly found you can build a loyal audience based on trust. But it's earned trust – it's not a blind trust like, “You work for the CBS station, so you must be correct.” It's not that. It's a trust that says, “I've read a lot of your work and it seems to check out; it reflects reality.” That's the key in the end: are we writing things that reflect the world people actually live in? People notice after a while if we keep reporting things that don't seem to reflect the world they're in; they try to find someone else who's reporting something that does.
Erika N: And if we make mistakes we have to correct them quickly and transparently.
Tim M: Absolutely.
Erika N: I think that's incredibly important.
Ted N: It also shows that we're not above that. That was part of the problem in the past. I think there have been a lot of times where media organizations were less challenged or easily sought out. You could paper things over. Acknowledging that we are human enterprises actually can help to build that trust.
Dave S: I do want to put in a word for analysis, too, because the news in particular can be gray and dull and stale – that scares people off as much as distrust of media. You have to be careful in your analysis and it has to ring true, but you need that to get people interested.
Ted N: Being interesting – okay, we always talk about that. Local TV news gets a bad rap. Sure, there are nights when we get more car accidents than reflects the proportion of car accidents in the general population. But, on the other hand, what TV news does a good job of is relentlessly thinking about, “How can we make this both interesting and relevant to the people at home?” And I try to take that – when I'm writing something with a chart about the pensions, I try to think, “Why am I doing this? I find it interesting – why do I find it interesting?” Drawing people in is so important. We should be self-critical if we feel like we're losing our audience. Why are we losing them, if we think what we're doing is so important? We should look inside and try to see what can we do to get them back.
Tim W: As you've always said, it’s trying to get the Brussels sprouts into the story. I've done more television stories in the past five years that show screenshots of an Excel spreadsheet – that's real exciting. But there are ways to make sure that it's ringing true to a broader audience. I think the brand of journalism is one that news outlets haven't had to worry about selling, and now we do. That has become a problem for every institution, not just major institutions. That is being figured out by people who have much larger offices than we do; I hope they can figure it out. I think the only way you can sell the brand of journalism is to make sure it stands the test of time, which, as Ted said, is just a slower process. It is building credibility that people can trust you, that a story that is accurate and is going to ring true today as it will ten, twenty years from now.
Dan M: We are the only outlet that wasn't established at all as recently as two years ago and went through, admittedly, I think, a very rough patch early on. In the year that I've been at GoLocal, it’s taken a lot of time to build trust among – aside from readers – people that I call every single day to fight for that credibility, to know that they're going to get a fair shake. Our readership has grown significantly over the last two years and it's because people do trust us more now than maybe they did at the beginning. Certainly any time you're new, people are going to be a little skeptical. A lot of it, as Ted said, is giving readers a reason to care about inside baseball stuff. I love covering politics, but I know not everyone cares. I use this example all the time: not everyone cares about campaign finance reports, but if you put it into the form of a list – who has the most money, who spends the most money – that matters to people, and the page views and comments show it.
Ted N: We were meeting about prep for tomorrow night's Cicilline and Doherty debate on our station. What we kept coming back to is what are the people at home worried about? When they're driving home at night or at the kitchen table, what things concern them that a congressman might be asked to speak to or might have a thought about? There are times we can get too involved in the stories we find interesting and lose sight of what the people at home are worried about, even though we feel like we've written that story already. Unemployment's been very high in Rhode Island for years; sometimes it feels like there's no story left to write, but we have to keep writing about that, because it hasn't gone down. It's just become accepted, which is not good for sixty thousand people who still don't have jobs.