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Today's trust tip: Explain your word choices

Hi there. Lynn here.

When writing a story or headline, journalists are ideally choosing their words carefully. Sometimes our decisions follow company style guides. Other times they're the center of lengthy newsroom discussions.

But we very rarely talk to our audiences about why we use certain words over others, let alone shine a light on the debate and discussion that took place.

Users do often pick up on our word choices and make assumptions about them. They might make judgments about a story, a reporter and an entire news organization based on those assumptions. Instead of letting them jump to a conclusion, how about if we try explaining ourselves?

Here's a simple example of that, from when Newsy was covering oil pipeline protests awhile back. When sharing a story on Facebook, the staff noticed questions and assumptions related to their use of "American Indian" vs. "Native American." They jumped in with a comment, and in a few sentences cleared things right up. They explained the multi-faceted decision and demonstrated the level of thought behind the choice. (Notice that 600+ people liked the comment.)

The Standard-Examiner in Utah also used Facebook to explain why they were using certain terms when referring to guns. The news organization explained that they follow AP Style and shared the AP's definition of "assault rifle." They said, "we recognize that the term 'assault rifle' may not be the phrase everyone uses or prefers, but we follow AP Style as journalists when writing our stories and posts."

TRY THIS: Next time you discuss what word to use in a story, especially if it's at all controversial or likely to be misunderstood, consider explaining yourself. Try including an editor's note at the top or bottom of the story explaining the discussion and the decision. Include that information on air, in social post, in a newsletter — or anywhere else you're inviting your audience to consume the story and understand you better. If it's worth it, consider discussing the choice in a live video on social media. And if you can, please do make your style guides public, along with explanations, and link to them in stories.

Not sure how this could apply to your newsroom? Think about how you cover sensitive topics and communities. Or think about when you cover a police investigation. You are careful about how you refer to those involved (charged, a person of interest, etc.) and how to classify the investigation, right. Talk about that!

— Lynn Walsh Trusting News assistant director

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Trusting News aims to demystify trust in news and empower journalists to take responsibility for actively demonstrating credibility and earning trust. It is a project of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute

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