What is factual is not seen as trustworthy; what is unverified is treated as reliable.

These two scenarios tell us how trust in journalism is under threat, and that journalists face an existential challenge to remain relevant to their audiences.

As United Nations official Guy Berger said, when doubt is sown so that people in the end don’t know what’s credible, they are thrown back on their hearths—their networks, their social bubble, or a strong leader who reinforces predispositions, hunches and biases.

“The expectation that society can find professional journalism and trust is eroded,” Berger said during the World News Media Congress organized by the World Association of Newspapers and News publishers (WAN-Ifra) in South Africa last June. Berger is director for freedom of expression and media development of Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

Take a look at abusive language directed at mainstream media in comments posted on websites and social media. The hashtags #sundino and #fakenews have been used to discredit Cebu’s news publications. Cyber thugs abuse freedom of expression to frighten people into silence and pick on journalists, preferably women. Then, there are websites and Facebook accounts that masquerade as serious news sources by exploiting names that sound genuine.

“The overall effect,” Berger said, “is that healthy public skepticism about the merits between different information flows is shifting toward cynicism about all of them altogether.”

“The news media is in trouble,” said Jason Tanz in his Wired.com article titled “Journalism fights for survival in the post-truth era.” The advertising-driven business model is on the brink of collapse. Advertising revenue has been down for the last three years and continues to decline. With declining revenues for media companies, the industry has seen the loss of journalists through early retirement or redundancies.

But without journalism, who will go after the liars, expose the corrupt, check on government abuses? Who will ask the questions for the people? Who will report on triumphs and tragedies, and explain actual events?

The World Press Trends 2017 shows a shift from advertising to reader-based revenue, with subscription and copy sales overtaking ad placements in generating revenue. The study said that, globally, 56 percent of newspapers’ overall revenue came from circulation sales—print and digital—in 2016.

The shift from advertising to reader-based revenue is “reshaping the fundamentals of our industry,” said WAN-Ifra chief executive officer Vincent Peyrègne who presented key findings from the global study at the congress in South Africa.

“We have entered a pivotal moment,” Peyrègne said, “and more than ever our focus needs to be on our audience and producing high-quality, engaging journalism.”

Peyrègne also called on the news industry to take seriously the increasing number of surveys showing that people around the world are losing their trust in societal institutions, among them the news media: “The decline in trust is the biggest risk we face as an industry, and all our efforts must be with the aim of getting it back.”

“We used to trade in attention. But trust is our new currency,” Peyrègne said. “Any decline in trust erodes the foundation of our business: credible, first-rate journalism.”

What is clear is that the media industry has to go into self-examination mode on how to regain that trust.

In the panel discussion on “Media: broken, or just misfiring?” during the congress, media leaders discussed how journalism’s mission is more important than ever.

“We have to start by admitting that we’re the problem. We’re very quick to blame the environment or the ecosystem, but we need to look for the fixes ourselves,” said Ritu Kapur, co-founder of the India-based The Quint.

“We have moved from mass media to a mass of media. It’s a radical change for the industry,” said Rosental Alves, founder and director of the Knight Center for Journalism at the University of Texas.

The transformation will be from the old top-down ecosystem—in which publishers determined which information was distributed to the public—to one that values the audience and interacts with it, Alves said. (blog.wan-ifra.org/2017/06/09/journalisms-mission-is-more-important-than-ever)

“We come from a tradition in which we did not want to meet the audience. We were the gatekeepers that would provide, and they were a mass that, with a few exceptions, would not react. The great challenge of the next years is to build a different kind of relationship with the audience,” Alves said.

Here’s a six-point plan on what media can do to build trust and engagement with audiences, as drafted by Mike Wilson, Dallas Morning News editor, and shared during the forum:

  • Tell the audience what you’re doing.
  • Meet the audience.
  • Label our journalism more clearly.
  • Explain who you are.
  • Listen and respond to readers, and act upon what you’ve heard.
  • Examine and explain what we do.

As the WAN-Ifra summarized: The plan calls for more transparency regarding the work journalists are doing, clearer labeling of the different types of content they produce—from hard news to opinion pieces—and taking the audience more seriously.

Cebu media organizations are doing their part in trying to regain that trust. They go back to journalism principles and standards, and they call out fake news, as they take extra care to attribute content correctly.

They use digital media to bring their journalists closer to the audience by responding to comments, showing how they report events by going live, and admitting and correcting errors. On the social media arena, they point to journalism standards being upheld regardless of platform.

Journalism should not be measured against the benefits of social media. Social media should be judged against the standards of responsible information-generation and distribution.

A structured system of complaints, with the use of social media bots, is important for a reader to know he can turn to someone with complaints. They use their relationship with the audience as a way to boost trust, an important currency in the age of user-generated content and fake news.

If humanity ahead is to inherit a legacy to be trusted and cherished, the fight back for journalism has to be intensified, Unesco’s Berger said.

Journalism needs to reassert its place in the formula of trust. That each person needs, and will get, truths that will help him grasp the complexity of reality, Berger said.

He cited media literacy and press councils as ways to rebuilding that trust.

Students of journalism should be encouraged to hold internships not only in media organizations but also in communities where they teach ordinary folk the principles of journalism. Press councils could hold discussions not on how media are losing out to social networks but on how information flows should be guided and judged by the principles of accuracy and accountability.

Journalists are confident that their dedication to reporting credible information is what will save the media industry.

Marcelo Rech, World Editors Forum former president, said this is a good time to encourage young people to take up positions in media.

Alves agreed and said: “It’s one of the best times to be a journalist. It’s a privilege for this generation not to be the one that is ending the world but the one that is building a new media ecosystem, so I am very optimistic.”

(Nini B. Cabaero is the editor-in-chief of SunStar Network Exchange, the new media department of SunStar Publishing Inc.)

Read also: Trad-media fights back

(CJJ12 was published in hardcopy in September 2017.)