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Today's trust tip: Explain how you decide which stories to cover

This post is from the Trust Tips archive. We're sharing it again because it addresses one of the aspects of journalism that news consumers are most curious (and most uninformed) about. 

Hi there. Joy here. 

Picture the process of how your newsroom decides which stories to cover. Which meetings? Which crimes? Which festivals? Which games? 

If we’re honest, a lot of those decisions happen intuitively. We have conventions we follow about what’s newsworthy and what’s not. We have big-picture fairness we’re trying to achieve when it comes to who and what gets attention. We know what stories we did last year and try not to repeat them. 

And if we’re *really* honest, we admit that some of those decisions are based on things we don’t really verbalize, much less explain to the public. Like something that caught our attention on the way to work. Or what we covered to get an annoying source off our backs. Or what we meant to cover but didn’t because someone called in sick. 

Well, your audience notices what you cover and wonders about what you don’t cover. And if you don’t let them in on your process, they’ll make all kinds of assumptions about your motivations and decision-making, including:

  • I bet they didn’t cover that issue because it would have made an advertiser mad.
  • I bet they covered that meeting because it fit their political agenda.
  • They cover crime from this neighborhood more than others because they want to make us look like criminals.
  • They cover this school’s sports more often because they’re fans. What about the rest of us?

Sometimes those questions are asked in public, and we get the chance to respond. When you answer questions publicly, remember that you’re answering not just the person who posed the question but also everyone else who’s following the conversation. It’s a way of setting the public record straight.

At the Coloradoan, questions about crime coverage led to this story, which includes a look at the criteria to cover a story from editor Jennifer Hefty:

“Is the crime high profile? Did it occur in a public place? Did it involve a prominent member of our community or an ongoing threat to public safety?”

If you take time to gather the questions you’ve heard and put them all in one story file, you can link to it every time the questions come up. To level up, you could add a link to the beginning of every related story, so no matter where people come into contact with your crime coverage, they have access to the thought process behind it. (It might feel redundant, but only a small percentage of your audience would most likely see each individual instance.)

What assumptions is your community making about why you cover some stories and not others? And how can you be proactive about telling your own story more effectively? 

TRY THIS: Make a list of the questions and complaints you hear most about what you cover. Think about your audience and your sources. Think about your fans and your critics. What do people misunderstand? What gets lost between your good intentions and the public’s understanding of what you do? If you’re not sure what people think, find a way to ask. (Last week’s newsletter showed you how.)

Then write a piece to share publicly describing your process and your goals and asking for feedback and further questions. It could read like a mission statement or like an FAQ — whatever feels most natural. You could share it over and over in comment threads, over email — anywhere it would be useful. Imagine if your website had one of these for each beat or vertical. 

Related reading: How often do you share what motivates your journalism? 

— Joy Mayer, Trusting News director

UPCOMING TRAININGS: We have so many training sessions coming up that we were getting confused promoting them separately, so we've collected them all in one link. Here's a roundup. (Note that the free Poynter webinar series kicks off this week, but you can sign up anytime and watch sessions you missed.)

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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