Skip to content
Jan 20 / King Kaufman

Rosen’s “banking theory” of media trust: Keep that credibility balance high

If you’ve been reading in this space for a while, you’ve heard me say that credibility is a finite resource. Once you’ve established it, all you can do is keep it or lose it.

But media critic and professor Jay Rosen of NYU posted an essay last week that takes a more nuanced view. In A (brief) banking theory of newsroom trust, Rosen writes that trust, another word for credibility, is something that can be built up and drawn down, like a bank balance:

Some decisions that editors make put stress on accumulated reserves of trust, while others add to those reserves. From this point of view, trust—credibility!—is not something you have or don’t have as a news provider. Rather, the way you operate can build up or draw down the “reserves” of trust.

Rosen sketches three scenarios, in descending order of transparency. The first is “Don’t take our word for it. Judge for yourself,” in which the outlet shows its work, gives users access to all of the information it has. The second is “We had to make a call. Here is our reasoning,” in which the outlet withholds something, but explains its reasoning, as in the recent case of the New York Times not publishing cartoons from Charlie Hebdo, editor Dean Baquet explaining that the paper took the sensibilities of Muslim readers into account.

The third is “Look, you’re just going to have to trust us,” which is self-explanatory. With this third scenario, Rosen writes, “the operation is drawing on deposits of trust put there by earlier acts of journalism that turned out to be trust-worthy.”

The more we operate in that first scenario, the more trust we build up. There may be rare times when we have no choice but to operate in the third. If that happens, we’ll be making a withdrawal from our credibility account. Rosen concludes:

The banking theory of newsroom trust draws attention to the fact that some acts of journalism are easier to trust in than others. The harder you make it for us to trust you, the more likely you are to wind up with a negative balance. The solution is to build up your reserves by operating in a transparent fashion most of the time. In other words: Journalists, show your work.

I would put it this way: Tell us what you know, and tell us how you know it.