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Trustworthiness in Digital Journalism

Building real trust requires online news sites to launch Transparency 2.0.

In the sprawling landscape of digital news, who can you trust? How might journalists convince you, dear reader, that they are trustworthy sources in an online wilderness filled with rumors, conspiracy theories and cant? For executives of news organizations working to cultivate their brands online, and the reporters and editors who produce news, these questions are urgent ones. And now that a third of Americans get their news from their Facebook News Feed, what roles do software engineers play in the cultivation of trust online, now that their constantly tweaked algorithms, not editors, largely determine which stories we see?

In psychology, trustworthiness is often defined as an attitudinal response to interaction or exchange; it is an impression formation stemming from three qualities: ability, benevolence, and integrity (Colquitt et al., 2007; Mayer et al., 1995). In earlier theorizing, trustworthiness was considered a stable attribute of an individual, yet now it is increasingly seen as a dynamic of interaction between parties (e.g., Hardin, 2002). This way of thinking about trustworthiness is particularly useful in the digital world, where news sites encourage interactivity, and where users can indicate trustworthiness in a site with a mouse click. One way to understand the dynamic of trustworthiness is the good (or bad) alignment of behavior and expectancies. Trustworthiness results when the behavior of one party (a news site) aligns with the expectancies of another (audience members). Thus, we can cultivate trustworthiness by working both sides of the equation. Journalists in the digital world have made impressive strides on the behavioral side, but sadly, many have stumbled or failed to make much effort on the other end – that is, in influencing and shaping audience expectancies.

First, the good news. Journalists across the country are taking trust seriously. They are arguably talking about how to cultivate trustworthiness more than ever. “The Trust Project” at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University is one example; the project leaders, veteran journalist Sally Lehrman and Google News Products chief Richard Gingras, recently gathered top digital journalism executives and innovators for their fourth annual Executive Roundtable on Digital Journalism Ethics. Trustworthiness was the focus of the daylong program, and it featured inspiring examples of digital journalism initiatives aimed at offering compelling news content and engagement to foster stronger bonds of trustworthiness with audiences. Just to mention a few:

Stringwire is a crowdsourcing, app-based initiative by NBC Universal that encourages citizens at the scene of news events – in the path of a hurricane, at a Hong Kong protest area – to upload real-time video and reporting to editors who then curate the material for audiences online. It also provides a system where such on-location “stringers” can be rated for the quality of their work.

First Look Media bills itself as a technology company built around solid, independent journalism; the startup, by philanthropist and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar with former Rocky Mountain News publisher John Temple as president, plans to launch a collection of independent news and magazine sites that will be digital only.

Storyful is a news curation site that combines various technologies (geofencing, social media feed monitoring) to identify, verify and package news around the world for audiences and other news organizations – and paying people for the content they contribute. “Social content you can trust,” is the organization’s slogan. It promises to be a site that helps shape compelling stories thus help audiences separate what matters online – the signal – from the noise.

The New York Times has launched a “Watching” feature that “highlights developing news around the web” – intriguing claims, significant tweets, incomplete breaking reports – that the NYT may not have been yet able to verify. It’s a way, said Jonathan Galinsky of the Times’ newsroom digital strategy team, to signal to readers who learn about items elsewhere that the Times is aware of them too, even if the newsroom may not be confident enough in the details to offer a full-blown story.

Vox is a digital media site with a look like no other, featuring seven distinct brands and 400 paid writers producing original content. Vox designer Warren Schultheis says design can be as powerful as any language in communicating a site’s intent to audiences. The use of bold and unusual colors and striking formats is intended to “construct an experience of honesty and intelligence,” Schultheis said.

All these are exciting examples for anyone who cares about seeing quality journalism thrive online. And they no doubt constitute a tiny fraction of such efforts underway to cultivate engagement and integrity. Yet when we turn to the other side of the trustworthiness equation, shaping audience expectancies, the story is not as inspiring.

Historically, journalists have done a lousy job explaining themselves to the public they serve, resulting in a chronic disconnect between newsroom culture and what audiences expect. And it’s not getting any better. More than half of Americans said they did not expect a fair, full and accurate account of the day’s events and issues in a recent survey (Pew, 2012). It’s true that confirmation bias and simple unfamiliarity regularly warp people’s judgments about what they think journalists should be doing. But when reporters discuss how they got an explosive story, when editors explain why they showcased a graphic image, audience complaints decrease.

Any serious discussion of trustworthiness inevitably leads to the concept of transparency, which has much deeper philosophical roots and which has become a buzzword in business circles over the years (e.g., Plaisance, 2007; Ward, 2014). Digital journalists must understand that to be transparent about their work is to be respectful of their audiences in a fundamental way, and that technology, through archive management, use of metadata, source tagging, embedded notes, etc., enables them to accomplish this on an unprecedented scale. And more than ever, the same level of transparency is needed for the “new gatekeepers” of much digital news, the software engineers whose algorithms increasingly determine what people see, often using personal data as variables.

This is Transparency 2.0, and it will be critical if journalists are serious about better aligning their work with audience expectancies. But we have a long way to go.


Colquitt, J., Scott, B., & LePine, J. (2007). Trust, trustworthiness, and trust propensity: A meta-analytic test of their unique relationships with risk taking and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology 92 (4), 909-927.

Hardin, R. (2002). Trust and trustworthiness. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Mayer, R.C., Davis, J.H., Schoorman, D.F. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of Management Review 20, 709-734.

Plaisance, P.L. (2007). Transparency: An assessment of the Kantian roots of a key element in media ethics practice. Journal of Mass Media Ethics 22 (2-3), 187-207.

Pew Research Center. (2012, August 16). Further decline in credibility ratings for most news organizations. Available:

Ward, S.(2014). The magical concept of transparency. In Ethics for digital journalists: Emerging best practices (L. Zion & D. Craig, Eds.), New York: Routledge.