If you were a professional journalist and I asked you, “what does mainstream media provide that the crowd can’t?” I have some guesses about what I might hear in your answer: It’s more credible, more comprehensive, fact-checked, less biased, professionally composed, more knowledgeable, presented in the larger context, and more reliable, to name a few.

But wait! It’s a trick question, and not just because there are countless examples of all classes of reporting from both mainstream and creek media. The trick is epistemological: The existence or non-existence of these qualities on either side is practically meaningless if nobody can prove they exist to the audience.

What makes this trick important is that a person who doesn’t believe in the benefits of mainstream media probably won’t do much to support it, and I worry that too many people don’t. That’s the bad news. The good news is that technology can help newspapers, and all other deserving entities, earn trust among a generation that includes skeptics with access to a world of information.

Some Non-Representative Opinions

During the conference at MIT last month I decided to ask some back-at-home friends how much they value professional journalism.

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The results aren’t exactly uplifting, but obviously they don’t mean much — I doubt Gallup would back my informal “methodology.” I’m also betting a lot of the people I asked were thinking of network news when voting (one person commented “I voted for 5, but would vote for 1 if Wolf Blitzer [were] not included in that category.”)

The reason I mention this private poll is because it reflects a small-but-still-too-large sentiment of mistrust toward the mainstream media that I’ve noticed among peers and Internet brethren. I’m not old enough to know if this is new or if it’s been around since the dawn of time, although I assume the latter. The truth is, I also find myself finishing articles only to wonder what wasn’t said; and why shouldn’t I?

Fox News shows how easy it is for a media source to shape people’s understanding of reality on a massive scale. Goodness knows I don’t want to become one of those sheeple things I hear so much about.

The main issue is that most mainstream media is lumped together with political pundits, polarized reporting, editorial echo chambers, and infotainment-driven news cycles. Is it fair? Maybe, maybe not, but either way it’s something that must be considered: In the eyes of some, The Watchdog has become The Man.

Defend Your Credibility

Clearly a business model or distribution channel that prevents free riders would be nice, and providing so much value that everyone starts subscribing again is also a great plan, but what about all the people out there who would vote for option #4 in that poll? It seems to me that since professional journalists are doing what the industry says they do anyway, it’s time to use technology to leverage that effort and eliminate any room for doubt.

Here are some thought stubs about ways to show the audience why they can trust a specific news source. I may explore them in more detail in future posts.

  • Make your source documents public – I was so excited when the Obama Administration made it easy to read all the official documents on whitehouse.gov, until I realized I didn’t have 5 hours a day to read them. What I want is the ability to read a reporter’s analysis and have the means to check their work and form opinions of my own. (Word on the street is that somebody awarded a grant to develop a technology that could help with this effort…)
  • Provide Timelines and Notes – How much time was spent on this article? When did the research begin? What contextual factors influenced its development? Did anything get cut out that might still be worth showing in a footnote? The more information you can provide about the creation process for the audience the better.
  • Share Author and Editor Information – I know that disclaimers are provided when appropriate, but the more information about the people who shaped the analysis, the better. What else has this author written? For who? Where does the editor fall on political issues? Maybe some of this is none of my business, but then again, maybe it is.
  • Reference the Past – If you know the context of a new story, chances are you documented the context in the past, and maybe you even have some archived reports about it. Link to it. Even better, make a technology that allows for line item comments on old articles so that people can understand how it fits in. There is a lot of potential here.
  • Track your News Trends – What if I could see a visual summary of the topics covered by a news organization over time? Then I could know for sure how much was spent on crime, entertainment, world news, politics, etc. Ideally this would also show me what the specific trend was about – did CNN spend more time on Michael Jackson than Iran? I don’t really know for sure, but I’d like to.

Now that I look at it again, this might be the sort of added value that actually matters anyway. It differentiates those with time and resources from those without it while bettering the quality of the product. Sounds like a 2-birds-for-1-stone situation!