“5 Things We Can Do To Win Back Trust In Journalism”, With Devon Handy

In the age of information, people have a high baseline level of topical knowledge, so you have to work harder to differentiate, to break…

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In the age of information, people have a high baseline level of topical knowledge, so you have to work harder to differentiate, to break news, and to uncover where agenda-messaging is replacing objective truth. Just keep digging until you find non-consensus facts, figures and opinion. If objective truth is being attacked and labeled as “fake news,” all we can do is commit to putting the truth — consistently and unabashedly — out there. Make sure you find  it.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Devon Handy, the founder, producer, and co-host of Hellbent Podcast, a show dedicated to a feminist, nuanced view of current events and public policy. She is a mom, weight lifter, avid reader, and tells really terrible jokes.

What is your “backstory”? How did you get started in journalism?

Honestly, I fell into it. For so long I was interested in politics the way many privileged white women are: tangentially and from a distance. The stakes for me personally were low. I voted for Barack Obama in the the first presidential election I was able to vote in and figured I had done my civil duty.

During Hillary Clinton’s campaign, I, like so many others, had no doubt that the most qualified candidate for president put forth would win with no issues. I did some half-hearted phone banking and called it a day.

When Trump won, I realized just how narrow-sighted I had been. Politics is a contact sport, and democracy requires participation. I was at a loss, but knew I wanted to do something. I wanted to make sure this administration was held accountable and that issues that did not get traditional news media coverage would be visible in what I knew would be a never-ending deluge of bullshit.

Podcasting is the democratization of news media by removing traditional barriers in place that make it difficult for people to jump in. Being a completely independent network affords the opportunity to pull those barriers down. Most people listen to podcasts in headphones, in their car or at home, and that creates an intimacy that is unique. By literally speaking into people’s heads we have a clear and real opportunity to foster trust. We connect with our audience through our authenticity and belief that anyone — ANYONE — can change the landscape in which we live.

How has fake news impacted journalism in 2018? Has it changed your day-to-day process as you craft stories?

Fake news is real. There are sites out there dedicated to fake news, and not just supermarket tabloids. Spreading misinformation has been a hallmark of the political landscape, though it has come into sharp relief following the 2016 presidential election. The most evident aspect of this is the stratification of viewpoints. Since news outlets now have to prove that their information is not “fake,” many outlets stick to stories that they know their audience will accept as true, and thus narrows their scope of information. You get far right and far left media operations that way.

Hellbent has a strict list of sources that we consider reliable and we only source our information from that list. There are many excellent charts out there that show visually which outlets are reliable and what their bias or leaning may be. Hellbent Media sources material from outlets that lean left and right, but hold themselves to the highest journalistic standards. We also tend to stay away from Op-Ed pages and stick to fact-based reporting.

As a producer and host, personally, I also aim to be transparent about my own personal bias in my reporting. Objectivity is a myth, and anyone who says differently is obfuscating truth. I make sure my audience knows how I connect to a story and why I picked the news sources that I did.

Across nearly every topic, people are trusting the media less, according to a Gallup poll. As a journalist, what steps do you take to communicate trust and credibility in each story?

First off, I am upfront and open about my own personal biases. I am not trying to be something that I’m not, and I’m not attempting to obscure my purpose. Building trust with an audience is about authenticity, and, I believe, vulnerability. Traditionally, news media purports itself to be above such concepts, but especially in this complicated political news landscape, those are exactly the concepts that foster trust between a journalist and their audience. I reveal myself in the stories, and by doing so, I show that it is okay to connect with a story and seek the truth that lies at its heart. By giving that permission, I allow my audience to engage more deeply with the stories. When you engage with a story, you are likely to understand what is true and what isn’t.

What projects have you worked on that were particularly challenging from the credibility perspective, and why?

There is always doubt baked into political stories. Especially stories that are developing or are sourced through anonymous accounts given “on background” (often denoted in a story as “an unnamed person familiar with the situation”) are difficult to present at 100% accurate.

Reporting on Mueller’s Russia investigation is an example of a particularly complicated story that makes it difficult to foster trust. There is a lot of smoke with no real fire yet, as the saying goes. While the story develops, there are a lot of instances in which conjecture is all we have to report. It is there that innate trust with your audience comes into play. While there is no way to make people believe facts, especially when facts are coming out piecemeal.

There needs to be a balance between reporting what we know or what we think we know without perpetuating the rumor mill or mischaracterizing the facts. A good example is the now infamous Steele Dossier. While much of this package of documents is as of yet unverified, much as been reported out as true. Reporting on what is true, what is unverified, and what is false takes time and in-depth research. Hellbent Media has created a show that takes great care in its research and my audience knows that. We make it clear that we only report on information that, to the best of our knowledge, is true.

How do you ensure your sources contribute to the credibility of a story? What tools do you use to ensure the credibility of your stories? What tools do you use to record in-person and phone interviews?

While podcasting has done great work in democratizing news media, it is a double-edged sword. While traditional barriers are taken down, it also means that anyone can put information out into the world. Credibility of the group and the format is not as solid as traditional news media outlets.

To combat that, we take great pride in our research. With every show, we release detailed show notes that show exactly where we are getting our information and what information when got from other sources, such as interviews and Twitter and other analysis from credible journalists and experts.

We like to go directly to the source when possible. We interviewed Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood to speak to the dangers to abortion access and how to get into activism even if you don’t know where to start. By going straight to a source and presenting it, you build trust and credibility that holds over into other areas of reporting.

Many people question whether supporting facts and evidence are true. How do you present them as trustworthy in your work?

Anyone can present solid data in misleading and manipulating way. In January, the Department of Justice published a report about foreign-born people and terrorism in the United States. (You can find the report here.) The report itself was incidnary and made some pointed points about who is a terrorist and where they are from. And that is part of the data set, but it obfuscates what the DoJ’s definition of terrorism is, how the data was sourced, and who exactly is writing is the report. This goes back to being upfront about biases and presenting all of the source data you are using to make your argument. Analysis is fine, but if it is predicated on bad or incomplete data analysis becomes intentionally confusing and misleading.

This is why we take great care to be upfront about who we are and where we get our information. We go to the source, like with Cecile Richards or Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Common Sense Gun Reform. We show you the data.

Journalism is not an easy job. With pressure to hit deadlines while producing attention-grabbing stories, how does your process also build trustworthiness into your stories?

The nexus of our show is independence and a focus on stories that don’t get in depth coverage in traditional media outlets. While we do our best to keep up with the news cycle and the never ending stream of scandal and news, we also keep our focus on stories that get pushed to the side because of the dizzying clip of information to be processed.

We make it clear that our first priority is to the stories that affect women, people of color, LGBTQ people, economically challenged people and other marginalized communities. We have editorial control and make it clear to our audience that we take time to get things right the first time. We also have a section of our show in which we discuss feedback, and the ways that we didn’t get it right the first time. We are always looking to correct ourselves and add nuance, understanding and compassion to our reporting. We approach our show with humility and are willing to admit when we are wrong or when a story has changed. It takes time, but that is ultimately the most important way we build trustworthiness into our stories.

What tools help do you use that help make life as a credible journalist easier?

We have more than one person researching and working on each episode. Our AMAZING producer, Varsha Venkatasubramanian (who is also our co-host), is the smartest person I know. She’s a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley and gives important historical context and depth to our reporting. Relying on her and her knowledge and contributions gives me a solid foundation for historical facts and contemporary analysis.

We also make a point of reading underlying documents that go along with our sources. Understanding the studies, documents and bills that underpin the reporting about this political landscape gives us a solid foundation of fact and evidence. When something is written in black and white, it is often more believable to even the toughest cynic.

We also have long standing source relationships with heads of organizations, lawyers, scholars, activists and journalists that we can tap into to give us a more nuanced and contextualized understanding of the news and public policy.

As an experienced journalist, what advice would you give to young journalists who are building a reputation?

Be clear about your point of view, your biases, and who you are. The first step to building trust with your audience is to be vulnerable with them. That’s not to say you need to treat them as your therapist, but let them know why you are doing what you’re doing and why you believe in what you create. Content is ultimately what your audience has to connect with you. If you have a body of work that consistently gives a window into your methods, your ideology and your epistemology. Let your audience in a little bit. There is this idea that journalism is objective, but it’s not. Facts are objective. How we report them, even when approaching with the most neutral hand that we can, is inherently going to be shaded with who you are as a person. Let your audience see that. Don’t be afraid to let go of the idea that journalism is somehow loftier than other pursuits. It’s scary to put yourself out there, and you open yourself up to comments that can really sting because you have revealed something about your inner self. But, humans connect with other humans before they connect with ideas, so be a fully fleshed out human for your audience. It will reward you more than it will hurt you.

What are your “5 Ways Journalists Can Win Back Trust In Journalism” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) Fight for the investigative angle. In the age of information, people have a high baseline level of topical knowledge, so you have to work harder to differentiate, to break news, and to uncover where agenda-messaging is replacing objective truth. Just keep digging until you find non-consensus facts, figures and opinion. If objective truth is being attacked and labeled as “fake news,” all we can do is commit to putting the truth — consistently and unabashedly — out there. Make sure you find it.

2) Revamp your understanding of big data. Any publicist will tell you that journalists are suckers for good data and research. Flip that on its head. How discerning are you with your research sources? What’s the sample size? How were they sampled? Who is the sample? What is the primary resource behind the research? If there is a footnote in a reference, did you check the sources for that reference in the footnote, as well?

3) Your relationships are your laurels (don’t rest on them). If your sources have a slanted perspective, your reporting will consequently become slanted too. If you hang your hat on the same go-to-sources, it means you need to wear more hats.

4) Lose “these views are my own” disclaimers. If you’re representing your news outlet, your opinion is not left or right; it should simply be “objective.” Remember that your readers/listeners likely know what your views are (you can thank your Tweets/Grams/Facebook posts for that). This means an assumption based on that knowledge about you is likely being applied to your work. Make sure that you prove your reporting to truly be differentiated from your personal platform.

5) Social media is not a source. Social media may provide you with a great tip or lead, but it is not a source (unless, of course, your backup sources all support the findings). Social media can also be a way we win back trust, in that it can be used to break stonewalls and drum up that investigative angle. Nothing like a good “@company” post to draw attention to an issue. Let’s make sure we are using this to be contrarian (which is necessary to prove you are trustworthy), verses when we feel like complaining with a megaphone.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am looking to create a feminist media network that focuses on shows and content that highlight women, people of color, LGBTQ voices and other marginalized communities. We are a very independent outlet, and I held off on pitching my show to another more established network. I couldn’t find any that were led by women, or even had women in 50% of the leadership positions. Media is seen as an “old boys club,” and that rings true even for new formats, like podcasting. So, I’m going to create one myself. Part of my mission is to bring marginalized voices to center stage and let them tell their own stories. I want my media outlet to embody that not only in content, but in business structure. I want to pay women and people of color fairly for the work that they do and I want to put them in leadership positions. I want decision makers to have diverse backgrounds, and I want to give the microphone, so to speak, to those that are currently underrepresented. I didn’t see that out there, so, like so many women throughout history I decided: “Eff it. I’ll do it myself.”

I also want to encourage people to take their influence and use it for good. So: please donate to RAICES Texas, an organization that is providing legal counsel to those affected by the family separation policy put forth by this administration. Or, give to Planned Parenthood, so that they can continue to give life-saving medical care to poor women and men. And, let’s not forget that Flint, Michigan, still doesn’t have clean drinking water. They have been in crisis for years now, with no governmental plan to alleviate the problem. You can give to the Genesee/Flint Water Fund to help those on the ground get clean drinking water to residents affected by the poisoned water sources.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I want everyone, but particularly women, to Think Bigger. Women have always been the backbone of Democratic bids for office, offering time and money and countless other resources to get Democrats elected. But now, they’re thinking bigger. They’re running themselves. They are believing in themselves. Emily’s List, an organization that trains women to run for office had almost 17,000 women sign up for their program in 2017. Their previous record was set in 2016, when 900 women signed up. This is not a fluke. This is women giving themselves permission to create in a space where they have been historically regaled to the side lines. Your dreams and aspirations are not too much or too big; they are the perfect size. In fact, I challenge everyone to take their biggest dream and spin it bigger. I joke to my friends that I want to create a feminist media company that will take over the world. But I’m not exactly joking. Maybe I won’t take over the world, per se, but by reaching for that goal, I am a hell of a lot more likely to make an impact. Don’t be fooled by failure. Don’t be stopped by road blocks or Imposter Syndrome or the fact that sometimes things take longer than expected. Just because something is big doesn’t mean it’s unattainable. Just the opposite: run for the finish line and you’ll get there. To paraphrase a man much smarter than I, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: you will get there, even if you have to stop running to walk, then stop walking to crawl. Progress takes big thinkers and sustained action, and sometimes a little bit of crawling.

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