March 16, 2018

Knight Foundation, Aspen Institute Launch Trust, Media and Democracy Initiative

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (KF) announced September 25 the launch of a major new program, the Trust, Media and Democracy Initiative (TMD), in partnership with the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. The initiative will spend the next year working to explore the erosion of trust in democratic institutions—particularly the press—and examine solutions around rebuilding that relationship in order to support the role of “strong, trusted journalism as essential to a healthy democracy.” The initiative will be run by the Aspen Institute, with $2 million in support from KF.

TMD is anchored by the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, a nonpartisan 25-member panel of representatives from the media, higher education, technology, and cultural organizations. Tony Marx, president of New York Public Library (NYPL), and Jamie Woodson, executive chairman and CEO of Tennessee’s State Collaborative on Reforming Education, will chair the panel. The group will serve as a think tank and host a number of public sessions to discuss issues of trust and the media over the coming year.

In addition to the work of the commission, the initiative features both research and grant-making components. Funding made by TMD  includes a round of Knight Prototype Funding, awarded in June, which gave $1 million to 20 projects focusing on improving the flow of accurate information, and Newsmatch, a partnership with the Democracy Fund to support matching grants to nonprofit newsrooms up to $2 million, with an additional $750,000 committed to help nonprofit news organizations build sustainable capacity. An additional $2.5 million in grants was awarded to seven projects working to build trust in news and forge stronger connections between journalists and consumers.


The Knight Foundation’s roots are in journalism—it was originally founded through contributions from Ohio’s Akron Beacon Journal and the Miami Herald. For more than 60 years, Knight funding has invested in projects that encourage the open flow of information (including two Knight News Challenges on Libraries in 2014 and 2016) and has helped lead technological culture change in traditional newsrooms. However, as studies such as the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reveal, in the past year trust in the media has fallen to an all-time low.

Drawing on the success of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, a similar panel assembled by Knight and Aspen in 2008, KF president and CEO Alberto Ibargüen set out to convene a panel of diverse thinkers from a number of sectors. The commission was approved in March; members include Meredith Artley, senior VP and editor in chief of CNN Digital; Eduardo Peñalver, dean and professor of law at Cornell Law School; Deb Roy, director of the Laboratory for Social Machines and professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT Media Lab; Richard Gingras, Google VP of news; Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania; Shani Hilton, head of U.S. news at Buzzfeed; and many others.

The panel’s primary role, explained KF VP of Journalism Jennifer Preston, will be to focus on concerns about misinformation—often splashed across the headlines as “fake news”—as well as changes in technology and the media landscape that have shifted the ways people consume news and their relationship to its creators and venues. “We thought it was important for there to be a forum where people could have some time over the next year to wrestle with these questions,” Preston said.” I think one of the things that people in this space have come to appreciate is the importance and value of research from an array of disciplines.”

While cochair Marx is the sole representative from the library sphere, libraries’ missions are closely aligned with the work of KF and the initiative as a whole. “The Knight Foundation has been a great partner for libraries nationally and for the New York Public Library. So we’re delighted to continue that partnership in this way,” Marx told LJ. “I think everyone agrees we have reached a crisis point where what is true news—what are facts—is all being questioned. Libraries, of course, have always been foundational in saying we will present quality information and fact, we will help you distinguish between fact and fiction, and that has become all the more pressing now. And of course libraries are partners with the media in needing to ensure quality, trustworthy information.”

Over the upcoming year, the panel will host four or five public meetings to discuss these issues. The series kicked off on October 2 at NYPL, with a discussion hosted by Marx and Woodson. Speakers included former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, First Draft strategy and research director Claire Wardle, social media scholar danah boyd, senior VP and general counsel of the Hearst Corporation Eve Burton, former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, and Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

In December, the commission will gather at the University of Pennsylvania to bring scholars into the conversation. “It’s not like there’s a department of [trust, media, and democracy] in a university,” noted Preston. “There are scholars doing work in this area who are neuroscientists, others working in communications theory, others working in technology, computer scientists looking at data. So that’s a real opportunity to bring these people together.”


KF, in partnership with the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation, announced the open call for Prototype Funding ideas in March. The 20 winning projects, which will each receive up to $50,000 toward exploring early-stage media and information ideas, were announced along with the TMD launch. These ideas will be developed and built out over the next nine months, beginning with training in human-centered design.

Recipients included Media Literacy @ Your Library, created by the American Library Association in collaboration with the Center for News Literacy, which will develop an adult media literacy program in five public libraries. The program will include a series of online learning sessions, resources, and an in-person workshop to train library workers to help patrons become more informed media consumers.

Other Prototype Funding awardees include Facts Matter, a PolitiFact-led project that aims to improve trust in fact-checking through events, assessment, and games; ChartCheck by Periscopic, which will address the spread of misinformation through charts, graphs, and data visualization; Social Media Interventions by Boston University, designed to combat the spread of misinformation through real-time online interventions; and the Hoaxy Bot-o-Meter by the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, which plans to develop a tool to uncover Internet bots that spread misinformation.

Grants were also awarded to seven larger projects: Cortico, a nonprofit news platform to be built by the MIT Laboratory for Social Machines; the Duke University Reporters’ Lab; First Draft, a news lab supported by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; the Associated Press; the Reynolds Journalism Institute; the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics; and the Jefferson Center, developed to strengthen connections between local newsrooms and their communities in Akron, OH.

“These grants are building on our portfolio of work on helping support accurate information and new ways that journalists are engaging with the public,” said Preston. Such investments are a way for KF to “make some bets with people who we know are really looking to explore [these issues],” she told LJ, and the prototype challenge “so we could find out who has great ideas in this field…. Their work, and their ongoing learning, will help inform us and everyone else along the way.”


The third arm of TMD’s mission is research, to be led by Sam Gill, senior adviser to the president of KF and VP of communities and impact. An initial round of research was presented at the Aspen Institute Workshop on Trust, Media, and American Democracy in August, addressing the erosion of trust nationwide. In his white paper “Mistrust, Efficacy and the New Civics: Understanding the Deep roots of the Crisis of Faith in Journalism,” Ethan Zuckerman,  director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, posed wondered “what precisely has happened to the relationship between the press, the government and the American people. What does it mean for democracy when a sitting president refers to the press as ‘the opposition party’?”

TMD’s role is to spark and continue this conversation. “I’m doing this because I’m a citizen,” Marx pointed out to LJ. “If we don’t find ways to bolster popular trust in each other, in the media and in the information that our democracy depends upon, we are all doomed to a future I don’t want my kids to live in.”

Also in the works is a major survey to gather current data on questions of trust and misinformation, and the role of technology in the flow of accurate and relevant information. TMD will also keep an eye out for research being done outside the commission—which includes bringing libraries into the conversation.

“News media literacy, that’s another intersection for libraries and for journalism,” Preston told LJ. “What role might libraries and journalists and educators [take] together to help ensure that people understand and they’re bringing a real critical eye to what it is they’re seeing on FB, on Twitter, in their search results?”

Added Marx, “I hope we can come up with some creative solutions that—because we draw upon a mix of talent from across the political spectrum, as well as from libraries and media and tech and other sectors—hopefully we can think of some things that might be worth trying or doing that could adjust the course that we seem to be on at the moment.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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