This piece was originally published by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. It has been republished with permission. You can join the author for a free Webinar about building trust on Facebook at 2 p.m. Thursday, March 2.
Relationships take work. You don’t get intimacy without putting in some time. You don’t ask for favors without offering the equivalent yourself. You earn trust by being there consistently, and by listening.
The Trusting News project is basically a recipe for a genuine, two-way relationship with news consumers, rather than just an exchange of information. Relationships involve caring whether you’re meeting the needs of the other party — and being willing to adjust if you’re not. They involve knowing what people need from you and whether you’re meeting those needs.
The 14 newsrooms that helped test social strategies for building trust found that what’s true in real-life relationships is also true on Facebook. If you want users’ attention, loyalty and time, you have to earn it. If you want them to open up to you and speak well of you, you need to show you deserve it.
Here are four rules from dating that apply to journalists who want better relationships with their communities.
Talk about things the other person is interested in
When on a date, you’re likely to be continually watching for cues about how you’re being received. You’re looking for connections and shared interests. What do you have in common? Is your date responding well to your work stories? How about vacation anecdotes? What’s her mood? Does she seem comfortable? Should you keep it light or broach something more serious? Does she seem to want to linger over dessert, or should you suggest a change of venue?
Newsrooms with lively, engaged audiences are often the ones that know what their audiences want to talk about. They pose questions on things that their users will want to chat about. They remember what their communities wanted to talk about last week and try a new angle on that topic again. They don’t invite conversation again and again around things that continually fall flat.
This does not mean that newsrooms should cover only things that get lots of page views (though we should be paying attention to what stories just aren’t getting read). It does mean, however, that not everything we do is a good fit for social media engagement. People are in different moods on different platforms. People who come to your website for policy analysis might just not be looking for that from you on Facebook. So quit trying, or do it differently. Otherwise, you’re being tone deaf.
Don’t ask for more engagement or intimacy than you’ve earned
If you’ve been on just one or two dates with someone, you probably wouldn’t ask him to water your plants when you’re out of town or drive you to a doctor appointment. You wouldn’t expect him to help you fill out insurance forms or do the dishes. You are also unlikely to ask him about his medical history or financial situation.
In a relationship, you have to earn the right to ask for those favors or expect revelations on those topics.
Yet journalists ask for more than they’ve earned a lot. They publicly pose questions about things that require a lot of work or that ask people to share personal information.
The Standard-Examiner hosted respectful, nuanced conversations on race and policing. The comments were civil and complimentary (on their own posts and on the shares of the posts). That only worked, however, because of how present the journalists are in conversations day to day. They ask not only about Black Lives Matter but also about people’s favorite ice cream and first jobs. Click through to any of these examples to see not only the range of questions they pose but also how they acknowledge and express appreciation for readers’ participation.
If you ask a question, listen to the answer
Once you have earned the right to ask someone you’re dating about their medical history, you wouldn’t dream of asking the question and then tuning out. Think about how that would go. You ask someone, “So, you mentioned you’d beaten cancer?” Then while she tells you about it you make a mental to-do list or daydream about a vacation. When she stops talking, you say “oh, interesting,” and change the subject.
You also shouldn’t pretend to ask a question when you’re actually just asking so you have an excuse to answer it yourself. “Have you been to Europe? Oh, you have? Well, let me tell you about my very impressive trip to Europe.”
But journalists do the online equivalent of this all the time. We pose questions and then disappear. We don’t ask follow-up questions. We are absent when someone else is being rude to the person who’s sharing. We don’t thank people for sharing. Too often, we don’t even acknowledge that they shared.
We also ask questions that feel rhetorical. “What do you think?” is attached as a sort of throw-away, when it’s clear the real purpose of the post is to get you to read our story.
Instead, when we really want to hear from people, we should make conversation the main purpose of a post. We should write in a way that makes the invitation the focal point, rather than a tacked-on gesture.
Reflect back what you’ve heard and learned about the person
When dating, demonstrating that you understand someone and can anticipate their needs is a sign of growing intimacy. We look for chances to show we’ve been paying attention. We say things like:
“This made me think of you because. …”
“I thought you’d be excited about. …”
“I knew this would make you sad, but I thought you’d still want to know. …”
What mood is a certain situation likely to put your date in? How is he likely to feel? Look for chances to show you understand and can relate.
Journalists often get nervous about injecting emotion or opinion into a post. But doing so does not always run counter to journalistic mission. It likely would not be at all controversial to congratulate school officials for keeping kids safe or say that your staff is saddened by the death of a child. And it might be appropriate to write in a way that encourages a focus on shared humanity.
It’s also appropriate to reflect that you know what your community wants. Look for chances to say things like:
“We know how excited this community gets about new restaurants. …”
“Our story about this was our most-read post last week, so we want to be sure to bring you an update. …”
“Those of you who’ve lived here a long time will remember. …”
These principles apply in a lot of social situations, not just dating. Picture yourself building connections with neighbors, meeting people at a party or getting to know new colleagues. You need to cultivate common interests. Listen actively and demonstrably. Ask only for what you’ve earned.