Promote the need for sincere information for a democracy based on trust

Could creating best practice standards for journalism be a solution to public distrust?

Aurélien BREST

Making the journalist profession more ethical and transparent is the mission of the Journalism Trust Initiative, run by Reporters Without Borders, and the Trust Project, led by American journalist Sally Lehrman. These initiatives, created in 2017, take two different approaches to embed and normalise journalistic best practices within media organisations.  

Background

The media ecosystem is going through a manifold crisis. On top of difficulties related to the economic model of media outlets, due in part to the Internet deregulating the information market, comes a loss of trust. Certain media organisations have been propagating fake news, contributing to this erosion of faith across the press.

While the situation is unprecedented, this is not the first time that these kinds of problems are being experienced. Codes of ethics are regularly brought up as the solution to rough patches in the world of the press. Following World War I, a time of intense government propaganda, the National Union of French Journalists adopted the Charter of the Professional Duties of Journalists in the summer of 1918. This Charter vowed to put an end to a series of scandals involving journalists, as well as to protect independence in the profession in the face of rich industrialists dominating organs of the press. The 1980s saw a turn in critical thinking on journalism, according to media sociologist Jean-Marie Charon. The decade was marked by a shift in the profession, with the rise of private television as well as the development of new communication techniques tested during the First Gulf War. During this time, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was founded, the Kantar/La Croix media trust barometer was created, and many codes of ethics were adopted by media organisations.  

At the end of 2019, the Conseil de Déontologie Journalistique et de médiation (Council of Journalist and Media Ethics) was created by a group of professional bodies, including the National Union of French Journalists, who met at the Observatoire de la déontologie de l’information (Information Ethics Observatory). This took place against the aforementioned backdrop of crisis. With this Council, the Information Ethics Observatory aims to respond “to the loss of public trust towards the media and to various attempts to manipulate information”. The Council will categorise “what can be considered information and what falls under freedom of expression but is non-informative”. Anyone can appeal to the Council of Journalist and Media Ethics on questions of journalistic ethics, although their decisions hold no legal weight. In an open letter published on 29 November, some journalists expressed their opposition to the project. The signatories criticise it for having been created at the instigation of the government, which they see as lacking the independence necessary for this kind of institution.

In this tumultuous time, the Journalism Trust Initiative and the Trust Project are hoping that a process aiming to create standards around key journalistic values will allow confidence to be re-established between media organisations and their audiences.                

The Journalism Trust Initiative

The Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) aims to protect freedom of opinion, independence and media pluralism, by creating a system of standards that media organisations can choose to join through a public declaration. At the instigation of RSF, it is made up of various actors involved in the media ecosystem: journalists, digital platforms Facebook and Google, public authorities and non-governmental organisations.

The JTI has dedicated five key ethical criteria to journalism: accuracy, independence, neutrality, fairness and transparency.

The JTI has dedicated five key ethical criteria to journalism: accuracy, independence, neutrality, fairness and transparency. Based on these five pillars, the consortium met for workshops under the supervision of the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), with input from open public consultations, to create a list of criteria to become standards of journalism. The fifth workshop, which took place in 2019, marked the end of the drafting stage.  

The JTI is now entering the standardisation phase. From August 2020, members of the JTI can request to be certified. This mechanism was designed to be a true standardisation process for the press. The certification procedure will be piloted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Third-party bodies will have the role of evaluating whether media organisations are compliant with all JTI standards. These certifiers will themselves be accredited by an independent organisation attached to the International Accreditation Forum (IAF). This Forum inspects and evaluates the competence and neutrality of certifiers.  

The certification will be able to be implemented in online platform algorithms and therefore increase the visibility of these media organisations over non-certified competition. It also aims to attract sponsors and advertising revenue – by choosing a JTI-certified media organisation, financial partners will be able to show their support for a trustworthy and reliable media ecosystem.  

The JTI hopes that any actors that “collect, produce and distribute information” will recognise these standards, in the aim of giving citizens “the ability to fully participate in society”. It also has an international aspect, by drawing on the CEN’s standardisation mechanism used in Europe.  

Further questions

At this point, we do not know the details of the impact of the certification with the criteria established by the JTI. In particular, we do not know if media organisations will have to implement all the standard criteria promoted by the JTI in order to be certified. And if that is the case, nor do we know how the different criteria will be weighted in the search algorithms of digital platforms.

The Trust Project

The Trust Project was also born out of the great difficulties that the media is faced with at present. The initiative, which is still being worked on, is followed by a consortium of media organisations (including El Pais and The Washington Post) and digital platforms (Google, Facebook and Microsoft).

The Trust Project is currently suggesting eight trust indicators, with a “Trust Mark” logo for those who comply with them. These indicators are designed to be incorporated in the Google, Facebook and Microsoft search algorithms, to highlight certified media organisations.  

Unlike the standard criteria proposed by the JTI that focus on media systems of organisation and governance, the TP proposes criteria that are directly applicable to journalistic content. For example, there is a “Citations and References” indicator that relates to whether the sources used are referenced in the article. If a media organisation complies with the eight proposed indicators, it can obtain the “Trust Mark” label and display it on articles that it produces or hosts.  

Cooperating with Facebook, Google and Microsoft should guarantee greater online visibility for “Trust Mark” media organisations.

For the moment, the eight indicators are given as descriptive recommendations linked to examples taken from existing media organisations. Each indicator is made up of a series of recommendations that media organisations must comply with to receive the label. Details of the eight indicators are available on the Trust Project website. 

Further questions

The Trust Project is still in the development phase and has not yet been made available to all media organisations. There is still uncertainty around the process of verifying that organisations comply with the eight criteria, which grants the right to display the label. For now, only media organisations working on the project can use the label.  

Differences between the JTI and the TP  

The main difference between the JTI and the TP lies in how the two consortiums work. At present, the TP has a collaborative structure based on group work. The JTI is also founded on collaboration, but aims to turn these indicators into real international standards, which would involve the same process as any other officially recognised standard project. The methods followed by the two projects are therefore very different.  

Furthermore, unlike the JTI, the Trust Project does not involve implementing standardised procedures to respond to the proposed standards. For example, to guarantee the accuracy of facts, while the JTI recommends establishing internal rules applied via a systematic editorial process, the TP requires the media organisation in question to place a public declaration on its site stating that it performs rigorous fact-checking. The consortium checks that participating organisations are compliant and thus guarantees this declaration. This peer recognition is what constitutes the trust marker from the TP. For the JTI, it’s different – each media organisation must be accredited by an independent accreditation body.  

Other initiatives around the world  

In the United Kingdom, there was great debate around the Leveson Inquiry (a report ordered following the News International phone hacking scandal). This report, published in 2012, recommended the creation of a new press regulatory body that could affix a logo (like the Trust Project) to all media organisations who comply with the body’s criteria. In 2014, the Press Recognition Panel (PRP) was created to implement the report’s recommendations, followed by the Independent Monitor for the Press (IMPRESS) in 2016. The PRP acts as an independent accreditation body and recognised IMPRESS as the reference body of standards for certifying journalism practices in the United Kingdom.  

Though it is similar to the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) with its standards process, this approach has not been recognised by the major press groups in Britain.  

A second initiative, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which many media organisations have joined, has not sought to be recognised by the PRP as members of IPSO criticise this regulator for lacking independence from the government.  

It’s certainly a complex situation, and some of the biggest British media organisations have, for the moment, opted for their own internal mechanism of self-regulation. This is the case for The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Independent.  

It should be noted that IPSO is part of the JTI consortium and participated in the fifth and last working group.  

Conclusion

The vision of journalism defended by the Trust Project is almost the same as that promoted by the Journalism Trust Initiative. The values of these initiatives are also close to those defended by the French Charter of the Professional Duties of Journalists: accuracy, integrity, transparency, neutrality, error correction, and independence. The main difference comes from the fact that the Trust Project and the Journalism Trust Initiative aim to involve not just journalists, but also media organisations, in a context where the public is increasingly finding their information on the internet. The idea is to encourage media organisations to implement these standards, with the cooperation of Facebook, Google and Microsoft, which guarantees them high visibility on the internet as opposed to their competition. And on the other hand, media organisations who do not play the game will be taking the risk of being pushed down in the search results. Although neither of these two projects has been brought to completion yet, both are seeking to cooperate with digital giants. The Trust Project is currently being used by 126 news sites. As for the Journalism Trust Initiative, it should be implementing its standards in the course of 2020.  

For more information:

Charon, J. M. (2003). L’éthique des journalistes au XXe siècle. Le Temps des médias, (1), 200-210.

https://blogs.mediapart.fr/la-sdj-de-mediapart/blog/291119/conseil-de-deontologie-pourquoi-nous-n-y-participerons-pas

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/05/what-people-really-want-from-news-organizations/526902/

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