Interview with Kai Kupferschmidt on the importance of trust in journalism and a functioning information ecosystem

“The only way that our work will have an impact on the world is if people believe it to be true. Showing people how journalism works will help to foster trust”, says science journalist Kai Kupferschmidt. Kai, based in Berlin, studied molecular biomedicine and afterwards attended the Berlin Journalism School. He has worked as a freelance editor and writer for numerous German newspapers including Der Tagesspiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Science Magazine. He has written two books and received numerous awards for his work. He has also taught students at journalism schools, most recently during the European Science Media Hub’s Summer School: ‘Storytelling in Science’.

Why is it important for journalists to build trust with their news sources and the public?

Kai Kupferschmidt profileKai Kupferschmidt: Those are two very different things, but both are essential for us to be able to do our job. Those who act as reliable sources provide journalists with important information and perspectives. As journalists, we need people who are willing to tell us the truth as they see it and to feel comfortable coming to us when things go wrong or when people bend or break the rules. If our sources don’t trust us, they won’t come to us and tell us what is going on.

It is also vital that the public trusts us. The only way that our work will have an impact on the world is if people believe it to be true. On a systematic level, we also need our audience to understand how information and news are made so that they have a better idea about what and who to trust. Nowadays, everyone is an amplifier with the potential to spread information and it’s therefore important for us to help people discern information they can and can’t trust.

How can journalists work to build this trust?

Kai Kupferschmidt: We behave in a way that fosters trust and we give it time – which is difficult given that we don’t have that much time with the crises that we’re currently facing. We also have to make sure that we have a functioning information ecosystem with journalists giving good information for society to act on.

As journalists, we need to be more honest about the systemic problems that we’re confronting. There will always be stories that undermine trust, which became very apparent during the pandemic. It’s important to acknowledge that, like in any profession, there are individuals who are not reliable.

Another thing to be aware of is that the public can see that the media promotes and discussescertain topics more than others. For example, the stories that journalists pick up often have a lot to do with economic interests.

I think we need to be very transparent about these mechanisms that are apparent to journalists and perceptible to the audience. We need to be clear about where these mechanisms play a role and where they don’t. Showing people how journalism works will help to foster trust. Furthermore, we need to make sure that we cover misconduct in our own profession with the same rigor that we cover other topics. I think this is something that we need to grapple with and by doing that, we can win back some trust.

What do we mean when we talk about a “polluted information ecosystem”?

Kai Kupferschmidt: One of the things that I’ve consistently heard over the last decade of covering infectious diseases is that our risk of having animal viruses spilling over to humans has increased due to the degraded state of our environmental ecosystems. As habitats shrink and human society encroaches, there is more contact between animals and humans, and the risk of an infectious disease being transmitted increases. I think of the information ecosystem in a similar way.

Similar to our environmental ecosystem, our information ecosystem is changing and certain risks, such as the spread of misinformation, are increasing as a result. Misinformation that may have just been consumed by a small group of conspiracy theorists previously is now spilling over into the mainstream. Just like a pandemic, it’s now easier for misinformation to travel and spread like a virus.

There are scientists who are researching this environmental ecosystem and trying to understand how it is changing, where the risks are, what the hot spots are for new emerging “infections”, and how we protect ourselves against them. But if you transpose that to the information ecosystem, it is much more challenging. The information ecosystem is difficult to research, isn’t as well understood, and it is changing much faster. You can also argue that the changes to both our environmental and information ecosystems are being driven by the desire to extract capital and wealth.

Algorithms, for example, are not made to provide the most accurate or relevant information but instead to maximise the time people spend online so that companies and platforms can make as much money as possible from advertisements. Unfortunately, the solution to creating a healthier information ecosystem is difficult to find.

Why is now an exciting time for young journalists?

Kai Kupferschmidt: The proverb, “May you live in exciting times”, was often cited ironically during the pandemic because living through tumultuous and challenging circumstances can be more of a curse than a blessing. This is also the situation we find ourselves in with the current state of journalism.

Journalism is more critical than it has ever been, and we have more tools at our fingertips than we have ever had. There is also more importance attached to it than ever before due to the existential crises that we are confronting as a society. So, there is every reason for journalists to be motivated and look forward to doing their job. But at the same time, the profession of journalism is facing a lot of challenges. These include the issue of trust and the polluted information ecosystem that we discussed earlier, as well as the basic economics of journalism.

What I find exciting when I talk to younger journalists is that they are going to have to be the ones with the solutions to these structural issues. I am confident that the younger generation will be able to come up with solutions or, at least, partial solutions. Their proficiency with new tools and social media provides them fresh perspectives that I think can contribute to improving the system that we have now. I think there is a huge opportunity there and I think there will be people who grasp it.

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