I'm never going to trust your news organization

I'm never going to trust your news organization
Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen / Unsplash

Or your nonprofit. Or your company. Or your service. Or your product.

On its face that's a terrible thing to say. But sit with it for a minute. From someone who has worked in, around, and in support of news organizations, that does seem like a rather bleak take. But I don't think that it is, because I don't believe that trust was ever the right goal.

Please note, this post isn't a dig at the various projects focused on trust in journalism. This is an examination of terminology and why it matters. I'm a firm supporter of the goals and output of many of the journalism trust projects even when I disagree on what words we should be using.

Recall Citizen's United and the idea that corporations can use money as speech? Most of us hate that idea. We hate the idea that money is speech and that companies have a right to that speech. If you don't think something should even be able to talk, why would trust be appropriate lens for the interaction between you and that thing?

Oh, but corporations aren't news organizations. Yeah, they are. There's a bunch of corporations that are news organizations. Okay, but we don't mean that kind of corporation. Look, corporation is just a word. It's a kind of box but it's still a box in the same way LLC and 501(c)(3) are also boxes and none of them have magical properties that force the contents to be forthright and honorable in all their functions.

Whether a news organization is a corporation, an LLC, a 501(c)(3) or a collective, it is still not a person. It may be made up of a collection of people, but it, in itself is not a person. Trust is a visceral function predicated on complex interactions, socialization, instinct and judgment. Trust is an act of faith, of choosing to believe that someone else will behave in the way that you want, need or hope they will. Trust is an inherently sentient act, only possible between sentient beings.

I cannot trust that which I cannot hold accountable. And I can never, not really, hold a news organization accountable. Not in the way that the notion of trust requires. Sure, I can stop donating. I could unsubscribe. But the value of those small acts of pseudo accountability are not commensurate with value of my trust.

Trust is an individual act , but if one's trust is broken, a news organization cannot make amends on an individual level. (No, an email with a first name auto-populated in the greeting is not an individual level.) The dynamic can never be equal between an individual and an organization. The more unequal the dynamic between two parties, the less likely accountability can happen. Without accountability, trust is not actually possible.

It's understandable how we got to this stage. Human beings are fun little hypocritical creatures who will anthropomorphize just about anything we can conceptualize. But that is not always a good (or healthy) idea nor is it a viable plan for facilitating an effective and useful news and information strata of a functioning society.

We need to stop relationshipifying every interaction a person can have.

I'll speak for myself here but as an individual person, I have zero interest in a "relationship" with entities. Yes, I know the definition of the word encompasses both people and things, but we need different words here. We need to be able to better differentiate between dynamics occurring between human beings (what I think of as actual relationships) and dynamics between human begins and things (companies, organizations, algorithms, etc).

You think this is complicated now, what is a notion of trust between a person and a newsroom when a notable amount of a newsroom's work is AI generated, fact-checked or otherwise formed or modified?

It's difficult for me to contemplate trusting something that has so many different ways of classifying me.

In an interaction with a news organization, I'm a person but not always. I am calculated as a page view, an impression, a potential ad click, a subscriber or potential subscriber, a donor or potential donor, a newsletter signup, a "community" member, an engagement. I'm in the funnel or on the ladder. I'm always on the precipice of converting or churning.

I could trust your reporter. The person who has spoken with me. The person who has hopefully treated me as if I'm an actual human being. I could even trust a team of yours that I've interacted with. I could trust the person who responds to a message I send or a comment I make. I could trust you as a founder. I could trust you as a publisher. I could trust your people.

And if I could trust your people, then it would increase my confidence that your news organization is worth my time. My support. That it is useful. That it is likely to produce the kind of news and information that I, or people and places I care about, need in the future and therefore worth supporting now.

If you ask someone if they trust you (or the thing you're a proxy for), they're going to want to say yes. We are deeply social creatures. We tend to not want to let each other down. We are instinctively motivated to connect and form relationships with other humans. We have to be pretty strongly motivated to tell another person we don't trust them (or the thing they represent) in order to actually admit it. It feels like an insult. Because trust is deeply personal.

Trust is not something that people feel in increments. We tend to either trust or not. It's something that is earned and kept or lost.

We trust because of small moments, meaningful acts and unquantifiable exchanges.

Trust comes bundled with a lot of very human feelings and expectations that don't work in a Person <> Entity dynamic.

Trust comes along with ideas like loyalty, faith, belief, conviction, fidelity, hope, allegiance and relationship.

These are human words.

Our world is becoming more and more socially dehumanized, systemically inhumane and creatively automated. If we're going to make any sense of it, if we're going to address that dehumanization, if we're going to navigate this world, we cannot devalue human words with improper application. We should not appropriate these words for the sake of marketing.

Confidence is measurable in a way that trust simply is not. It can be built and diminished by degrees. It's a scale not a switch.

Confidence is appropriate for the dynamic that exists between a person and an entity. Confidence can be measured more systematically. It can function as a near 1-1 replacement for the way many news organizations (and systems generally) are using the concept of trust. There's a long history of confidence measurement in the sciences to learn from.

Confidence comes along with ideas like utility, reliability, certainty, assurance, replicable, dependable and consistent.

Those are far more fitting notions for a news organization in service of a community.