Building Disinformation Resilience: How to Grow Audience Trust and Defend Against the Spread of False Information
Journalists have historically been trusted and valued sources of information for their communities. But in recent years, the spread of mis- and disinformation—often accompanied by rhetoric encouraging distrust of the news media—has exacerbated a growing lack of public confidence in journalism. According to a 2023 Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, overall public trust in the news is at 32% in the United States—well within the bottom half of countries surveyed. And 65% of North Americans say they are concerned about their ability to distinguish between real news and “fake” news online.
One of the most effective ways for journalists to ease these concerns and mitigate the spread of mis- and disinformation is to establish a strong, two-way relationship with their audience. While no magic bullet can automatically restore trust in the news, the guidelines below can assist you in building stronger relationships with your audience, while providing opportunities to better serve them in the process.
Take time to understand the needs of your broader community and explore new avenues for identifying stories of interest. For example, are there local chat groups, listservs, or Reddit groups where residents voice concerns and ask questions about issues you may not currently be covering? Take those issues back to your newsroom and investigate potential leads. Community concerns that may have been off your radar—such as complaints about local pollution or ongoing disputes with a public utility company—could produce reporting that brings about desired change, helps empower your audience to take constructive action, and reflects your commitment to reporting on issues that make a difference in your community.
Keep in mind that reposts and comments may not be directly correlated to broad audience interest. According to the Reuters 2023 Digital News Report, across the 46 countries surveyed, the most “active participators”—defined as those who share or comment on stories online—tend be male, have higher education levels, and are more partisan in their political views. Consider what voices you may not be hearing from. Ask your audience what types of stories they’d like to see, what they think you’re doing right, and where you could improve.
Partner with trusted members of civil society who can help you boost credible information and build media literacy. Because of their trusted positions in the community, librarians, teachers, faith leaders, and community leaders are all on the front lines of combating disinformation. Their patrons, students, congregants, and fellow community members often look to them to decipher the narratives they hear online or from their friends and family. Work together to dispel false narratives and bring transparency to the news gathering and reporting process. PEN America’s 2023 report, Building Resilience: Identifying Community Solutions to Targeted Disinformation, shares case studies on how some newsrooms are teaming with local communities to support disinformation resilience.
Help build trust with your audience by showing them the person behind the byline. We know journalists like to report on the story and not be the story, but sometimes it can be helpful to “feature” yourself. For example, newsrooms may want to consider using expanded bylines and giving reporter bios a refresh. Try writing your bio in the first person and make it as conversational as possible. Instead of listing personal accomplishments and awards, reveal more of who you are as a person, what stories you’re most passionate about, and why you decided to become a journalist. Take care, however, to maintain good digital safety practices. PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual offers useful strategies and resources for tightening your digital safety and protecting yourself against online abuse and harassment.
Consider diversifying your social media presence to build trust and familiarity with a broader range of audience members. For example, if you normally post on Facebook or X, try shifting some of your efforts to TikTok. Experiment with publishing periodic TikTok videos discussing your most recent reporting and what you found particularly meaningful, interesting, or challenging.
Make resources available in-language. Work with your newsroom to ensure your reporting and information resources are available in-language for the primary languages spoken by your audience. If your newsroom faces barriers to creating or translating content, seek out partners who can point you to resources to support these endeavors. For example, try reaching out to language departments at local universities or ask your local government which translation services it uses to share in-language information with residents.
Get ahead of mis- and disinformation whenever possible. If you suspect news may soon break on a particular topic, develop explainers on elements of the story that may be new to your audience or that involve complex legal, scientific, or technical issues. Whenever you can, help to set expectations by letting your audience know when an anticipated story is likely to present complex issues, or if you suspect that the full details of a story may not be available for some time.
Be transparent in your reporting. When calling out mis- or disinformation, explain the reasons for your reporting and cite your sources. If you use AI, be transparent about how and when you use it and the steps you take to ensure the accuracy of the information it provides.
Correct errors as soon as possible. Take time to explain why and how the error occurred and, if applicable, what steps you or your newsroom will take to help prevent a similar situation in the future.