What makes media trustworthy?

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Trustworthy media organizations are those that consistently produce journalism in the public interest. It is self-evident that broad goals of social progress such as peace, justice, equality, and environmental health are in the public interest, and that powerful entities such as governments and big business often work against these goals. Trustworthy media will take a skeptical position in their investigations of corporate and government activity, and will produce fair, factual reports on social conditions and movements for justice.

Many large media organizations produce some journalism that is in the public interest, and some that is not, often making it a challenge to determine which sources are trustworthy. Misplaced trust can be dangerous. If we encounter some thoughtful, useful reporting from a certain source, we may begin to trust it; if that source then produces work that it not in the public interest, our guard may be down and we may fail to think as critically as we should. Therefore we should analyze which sources are consistently trustworthy. There are three crucial factors to consider: ownership, funding, and viewpoint.

Ownership

There are good journalists working at every type of media organization, but the overall voice of a news outlet will ultimately reflect the interests of its owners. It stands to reason that sources controlled by large, for-profit corporations are unlikely to be trustworthy, because these same entities so often work against the public interest. The same logic applies to news outlets owned by government entities. Ownership structures that consistently produce useful journalism tend to be non-profit organizations, not-for-profit cooperatives, foundations, and public interest trusts. These entities may have different levels of member ownership and democratic control. A for-profit entity can also be trustworthy, when it is a smaller company, and when its funding structure and viewpoint are in the public interest. Public interest journalism must include an understanding of how racism poisons our society, so media organizations owned by people of color are often particularly worthy of support.

Funding

Following the money is a crucial way to learn where an organization’s priorities lie. News outlets can be funded through individual donations, subscription payments, foundation grants, government funding, or sale of advertising. The most trustworthy news publications are usually funded by donations from their audience, grants from nonprofit groups, or a combination of both. Small donations from many people is better than big donations from a few people. Some degree of government funding does not necessarily mean a source is untrustworthy, but a publication that gets the majority of its funding from a single government entity is suspect. In a similar vein, some public interest news outlets get some funding from advertising without compromising their mission, but an organization that is funded primarily by big advertisers is not trustworthy. Transparency about where the money comes from is essential, especially in the case of for-profit entities and organizations with multiple revenue sources.

Viewpoint

Every publication has a point of view. News sources with a stated mission of supporting social justice movements are the most deserving of trust, primarily because the public can hold them to account if they fail in their mission. Many large news organizations hide behind a false objectivity, claiming to cover “both sides” of every issue. Fairness in journalism is a worthy goal, but there is no such thing as true objectivity, so sources that claim to be neutral are suspect, since they are intentionally obscuring their point of view. Opinions about the viewpoint of big news outlets are often wrong. Many mainstream newspapers and broadcasters are described as having a “liberal bias,” when their point of view is actually conservative or centrist. In these cases, it is helpful to actually measure how many column inches or broadcast minutes are used to cover different issues and viewpoints. Certain views can be identified as litmus tests. For example, outlets that promote the views of white supremacists or climate change deniers in the name of covering “both sides,” are untrustworthy.

Our Sources

The above framework can guide a complex analysis and result in a nuanced view of each publication. Ultimately, the decision for trustworthymedia.org is whether to promote the news source by linking it here, or not. So while some outlets have been definitely excluded, that does not mean that each organization linked here is equally trustworthy. In our List of Independent Media, we have provided information about the trust factors for each source, so you can make your own decisions.

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