Educator: How engagement and listening can build trust


Today’s journalism educators are sending students into a complicated media landscape. These Trusting News Educator Trust Kits will give you research-backed strategies to help prepare students to build trust with communities. The kits have been designed to help students learn about the media and how news works while preparing students for work in a newsroom or other information-sharing position. Learn more about our goals with these kits and how to best use them here.

How engagement and listening can build trust

Without understanding the assumptions that have led to distrust and the roadblocks that exist in creating sustained relationships, it’s almost impossible for journalists to effectively serve these audiences.

One of the best ways to understand what people distrust and don’t understand is to ask them and respond to their questions.

Also, if journalists want to best serve their communities they need to have regular interaction with them. To do this they need to listen and make it easy for people to get in touch with them. By doing this they can create news content that is more useful, relatable, helpful and interesting for their community.

Advanced: If you’re teaching a more advanced journalism class or are looking to level-up your curriculum, we recommend checking out this advanced lesson, How to respond to users. The kit builds on the lessons and concepts covered here while providing activities and assignments for those students actively practicing journalism.  

Help students understand how to best serve their communities by listening and then responding

Learning objectives

  • Develop a critical perspective on the media’s role and responsibility in serving the public interest
  • Learn how to have conversations driven by curiosity, not defensiveness 
  • Learn from real-world examples of successful audience engagement and community-focused journalism
  • Practice listening to news consumers about what they want from journalism and how news content can better reflect their lives 
  • Understand the importance of journalists and newsrooms making themselves accessible and available for feedback and questions


Using this in your classroom

Here are two curriculum outlines based on the provided learning objectives and in-class activities – all of which you’ll find in this Trust Kit. These curriculum outlines can be adjusted as needed to fit specific time constraints and student needs.

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Classroom agenda: 50 minute class

    Classroom agenda: 90 minute class

       Teaching materials

      Use the following resources to lead your students through this curriculum. The materials include videos, articles and slideshows. All can be used during class, assigned before class or as part of assignments or discussions. These materials can be supplemented as needed to fit specific time learning objectives and student needs.

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      Expert materials (for educators)

      The content below has been selected to help teachers and professors dive deeper and become an expert on the topic. 

        In-class activities 

        Below are in-class activities you can use to help your students better understand these topics while gaining deeper knowledge through peer interaction and hands-on learning.

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        In-class activity 1: Can you contact a journalist?

         .Who works in a newsroom, and how are they reachable? It’s too often difficult to find the answer to that question, even on the organization’s own website or social media profiles. And if the information is there, it’s often written using journalism jargon. 

        Have your students engage by analyzing another news outlet. Each person in the class (or in pairs or small groups) should pick a news outlet and determine the following:

        • How long does it take to find contact information for the news organization?
        • How long does it take to find the contact information for a specific reporter?
        • How easy would it be for a user to tell what individual staff members actually do, and who they might contact with specific questions or story ideas?
        • Does the news organization solicit feedback from news consumer/their community? (Consider social media call outs, surveys, embedded forms/surveys on stories or elsewhere on the website) 
        • Does the news organization share what they are hearing from the public, either in stories, polls, etc.?

        To take this a step further, you could have the students contact the news organization or specific journalist and see if they get a response.

        Suggestion: Students could go through this same activity by analyzing and improving their own student media.

        In-class activity 2: Practice defending journalism

        Encourage students to reflect on how they can respond to people who complain to them about “the media.” This can apply in personal or professional settings, and it might work well in intro classes or with people who don’t intend to be journalists. 

        In this exercise, pair the students together or put them in small groups for live role playing during class. You could also assign them to write a reflection about the experience.

        Set it up this way:

        Each time we talk to someone one-on-one — while officially on the job or otherwise — we have an opportunity to be an ambassador for our profession. How can we all use those interactions to help correct misconceptions and share the value of what we do?

        In-person as well as online, there are some people who may not be worth engaging with. But try giving people the benefit of the doubt. Answer them in good faith, as if you have a mutual goal to learn about each other. When possible, end the interaction by handing out a business card — or a handout about your newsroom — and inviting future feedback and questions.

        Here are a few common topics of complaints, assign one to each group of students, have them practice responding in small groups or pairs and then later with the entire class: 

        • Complaints about “the media”: Mention a few stories you’ve done lately that you’re proud of, so you can expand their idea of what journalism is. Tell them that your newsroom is made up of people who live in the area and cover all kinds of things that affect people’s lives. Say that you’re always looking for feedback and ideas, and try to get something specific out of the person. Tell them how to contact you. 
        • Complaints about “fake news”: Try explaining to them how you fact-check your stories and what it takes for stories to be published. Explain that you don’t just publish things you hear — you have to verify or attribute., Ask them what they’re afraid will happen in the story you’re reporting today. Also, try asking them what signs they’re looking for to tell whether information is credible. 
        • Accusations of a liberal bias: Acknowledge that there is a lot of partisan information out there and that irresponsible and lazy journalism is frustrating. Then assure them most journalists — including you — work hard to be fair. Ask if they have feedback about any of your recent coverage. 
        • A lack of “good news”: First, ask people what they wish the community knew more about. Write it down. Then offer an example of a recent story that shared positive things happening in the community. Tell them where to find those stories on your website, in your newsletters, etc.
        • Sensationalizing or “stirring the pot”: Let folks know your goal isn’t to cause trouble. You’re on the side of a healthy community. But ask if they think it’s important for journalists to shine a light on problems. Not everyone will agree on which problems need attention. But it’s hard to solve problems without public discussion, even when it’s uncomfortable. 
        • An inconvenient paywall: Let people know you understand the perception that online news is free. But behind any credible information is probably a paid journalist. If it feels appropriate, be light-hearted. “Would you do your job for free?” Help them understand that the story you’re working on represents a day’s wages to your organization. If communities want someone to let them know what’s going on, money needs to exchange hands. Also, let them know what has changed in the industry and how the economic times are affecting local advertising. 
        • Inaccuracy: Many people don’t realize how seriously ethical journalists take accuracy. They don’t realize we want to know if we’ve gotten something wrong. Let them know about your corrections policy, and how they should get in touch if they spot an error. You can’t correct it if you don’t know it’s wrong. If their complaints are about typos or grammatical errors, acknowledge those happen and are really frustrating, and say you’ll take the feedback to the newsroom.

        Have the students keep in mind these conversation tips:

        • Be polite and respectful, even if they’re not. If you can’t do that, walk away.
        • Conversations take time. Be upfront if you can’t spare much time, but do your best to make it clear you want to hear what they have to say. It’s okay to put a limit on the time you spend, though, and offer to follow up later.
        • If you don’t have the answers or facts to address their concern, offer to get back to them or connect them with a colleague who can.
        • Be comfortable with what you can share and can’t share on behalf of the organization. Don’t represent official views unless you’re confident it’s appropriate.
        • Have business cards handy, or another easy way to have people get in touch with you directly (not the main newsroom phone number).
        • Feel free to defend your work. Try to do it from a perspective of explanation and education, not anger.
        • Show humility. Admit if you don’t have an answer, or if people are teaching you something new. Don’t pretend journalism has no flaws.  



        Use the below assignments to help student gain a better understanding of the topics while practicing related skills. Each assignment has a printable Google Doc and a grading rubric.

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        Assignment 1: Draft responses to comments

        Find a printable Google Doc of the assignment and grading rubric here.

        Comments are often the quickest, most frequent ways news consumers respond to journalism.  The tone of them can vary quite a bit, but they have a reputation for being toxic and unintelligent. We know, however, that when journalists participate in comments, the tone improves and the perceptions of the credibility of the journalism improves. 

        Comments also offer an opportunity for journalists to be part of the conversation about their work. Even with someone who’s complaining or being accusatory, when we respond, we reach not just that person but everyone else who’s reading.

        One approach to comments is to turn accusations or complaints into information gaps — things people don’t know about how journalism works or what motivates it. Example:

        • COMPLAINT: You’re only writing a story about this business because you’re out to get them!
        • INFORMATION GAP: Why do journalists find it important to write stories that are critical of local businesses?
        • RESPONSE: The health department has found repeated violations at this restaurant that are a matter of public safety. As journalists, one of our jobs is to alert the community to how their government is functioning and also to share information that helps keep people safe. We will be sure to also share when these violations are cleared up. Thanks for commenting.

        Read the following scenarios a newsroom could face, and draft responses. Each scenario represents a break in trust and an opportunity to demonstrate credibility and actively earn trust. Think critically about what the problem or misunderstanding really is. How could you respond in the moment, and what could the newsroom do proactively moving forward. Imagine you are speaking on behalf of the brand, not just yourself.

        • Scenario: liberal bias. After working a booth for your news organization at a community event, several reporters and editors expressed concern and frustration at the number of people who accused them of being “biased” and only publishing information from the “liberal agenda.” One community member said: “Why would I watch the news? It’s all biased information, published so someone on the left can get ahead.” Is there anything we can do to combat this? Both internally and with our community? 
          • Sample comment: “All journalists are for one side or the other. How can we believe any of it? It’s clear which side of the spectrum you all fall on. Don’t even try to deny that your staff is mostly made up of liberals. After all, your main columnist is liberal and your coverage of the governor is way too favorable. Plus, you run Washington Post stories!” 
          • Questions and action items for the newsroom: xxxx
          • Your suggested response: xxxxx
        • Scenario: funding transparency. Some of your news organization’s revenue comes from the community in the form of donors, members or advertisers. Lately, there have been a lot of questions from users about who your contributors are. Some are asking you to list them all publicly, even those that donate or spend small amounts. Some have suggested the news organization should disclose in every story if any subjects or sources have given money. (The organization receives donations from many elected officials and activists who are quoted often.) 
          • Sample comment: “You’re protecting corrupt leaders who are just trying to buy their way into your coverage. What do you have to hide? We deserve to know where your money comes from.” 
          • Questions and action items for the newsroom: xxxx
          • Your suggested response: xxxxx
        • Scenario: inaccurate reporting. In a story about a controversial ballot issue, an unfortunate error was inserted by an editor. The reporter wrote the correct amount that was at stake for taxpayers, and an editor added an extra zero in the editing process. Journalists all know that these things sometimes happen. News consumers, on the other hand, often make assumptions about a lack of concern for facts. They also sometimes attach incorrect motivation to journalists’ actions, and will assume and error was made on purpose. 
          • Sample comment: “How can we trust you to get anything right when you can’t get the basic facts of the situation correct? This reporter is sloppy, and that’s clear throughout the story. This news product sure has gone downhill. You’ve lost me for good this time.” 
          • Questions and action items for the newsroom: xxxx
          • Your suggested response: xxxxx
        Assignment 2: Interview a news consumer, Part Two

        Find a printable Google Doc of the assignment and grading rubric here. If you are looking for a less advanced assignment, check out: Interview news consumers, Part One.

        There’s nothing like talking to regular people about journalism to help journalists be grounded in real perceptions, frustrations and experiences. Assign students to interview news consumers. This could be their own friends or family, a stranger or a consumer of a specific news product. Be sure to guide students through what will be done with the results (will they be published? shared with a class? anonymized?) and have them pass that on to their interview subjects. 

        This could stay purely qualitative. You could have students share their full answers and then also share a reflection of the experience and what they learned. You could also collect answers as a class and do an analysis of how the answers differ by things like gender, age, race and political leanings. (If you do this, please consider sharing the anonymized answers with Trusting News!)

        Start with boilerplate information.

        • Full name
        • Email address
        • Gender
        • Age
        • Race
        • ZIP code
        • What are your political leanings? 
          • Very conservative
          • Conservative
          • Moderate
          • Liberal
          • Very Liberal
          • Other

        Then move on to meaty questions.

        We encourage you to use these questions as a jumping-off point, and to rearrange or reword them so the conversation feels natural. You don’t need to get to all of these questions or ask them verbatim or in order.

        1. Do you see concerns and issues from your own life reflected in the news?
        2. What do journalists often get wrong about you or about things in your life (interests, demographics, values, beliefs, etc.)?
        3. What should journalists DO to more accurately portray you and the communities you’re a part of?
        4. Have you seen news coverage that doesn’t accurately portray you and the communities you’re a part of? What would you have liked to see journalists do differently?
        5. Tell me about an issue in the community that you’re passionate about. Who do you trust to give you information and news about this issue? How do you feel about how local journalists have covered this issue? What — if anything — do you wish journalists were doing differently?
        6. What kinds of stories or information would you like to see more from local news organizations?
        7. What could local news organizations and journalists do to earn more of your trust?
        8. Tell me about your experience consuming the news. What does it feel like, and what do you hope to get out of it? 
        9. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about regarding this topic that we have not discussed? Do you have any questions for me? 
        10. Gather some specific demographic information to make sure you’re talking to people who are representative of the audiences you’re trying to reach. Things like: Name, age, gender, race, general political leanings, and email or phone number. (pay close attention to the words they use to describe themselves, and then use those words back to them during the interview. How do they tend to group themselves? How do they label the communities they identify in?) 

        Interview tips:

        • Resist the urge to get defensive or take up too much time explaining how journalism works. Your goal is to learn from the sources and understand how they perceive news, not to convert them into fans. We hope, of course, that their interaction with you will leave them more interested in and open-minded about journalism. But we want to capture how they make news decisions BEFORE having had this conversation with you.
        • Try to get beyond abstract terms like “the media” or “media bias.” Ask people to get specific about what they mean. When a term like objectivity, bias, fact-checking or transparency comes up, see if you can figure out what that means to them.
        • Record audio if you can so you can focus on the conversation more than on taking notes. 
        • Send a note afterward thanking them for their time.

        For more tips, review the Trusting News Community Interview Guide.

        We’re here to help!

        If you have questions about these kits or have used the content in your classroom and have feedback or suggestions, please contact Lynn Walsh,

        Trusting News would like to thank the Scripps Howard Fund for funding the creation of these kits. We would also like to thank the many educators who have worked with us through the years and inspired this work.

        If you would like more resources to bring into your classroom check out our other Trust Kits.