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Feb. 26, 2019, 10:48 a.m.
Audience & Social

Want to build trust with readers? Try adding a box that explains the story process

“Small steps by news organizations can have an influence on building trust with their audiences.”

Providing readers with supplementary information on how a journalist approached a story seems to be effective in building reader trust of the news organization, according to a study out Tuesday from the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin. But tests of a second intervention — the addition of a “‘demonstrating balance’ box that directed readers of a partisan political news story to another story that offered an opposing partisan focus” — were inconclusive.

CME, Trusting News’s Joy Mayer, USA Today, and The Tennessean teamed up to test the interventions on more than 1,200 people. In the case of the “explain your process” box:

— Using a mock news site, people who viewed a news article with the box perceived the news organization as significantly more reliable, compared to people who saw the same story without the box.

— Using stories from USA Today and the Tennessean, people who viewed an article with the box rated USA Today and the Tennessean significantly higher on 11 of the 12 attributes of trust compared to people who saw the same story without the box. These attributes include being more transparent, informative, accurate, fair, credible, unbiased, and reputable. Only “does not have an agenda” was not significantly higher.”

The “Explain Your Process” box included information like “Why we’re doing this story,” “How we reported this story,” and “How we took steps to be fair.”

We conducted additional analyses to test whether these results differed based on several factors, including study participants’ pre-existing trust in online news, political ideology, or whether or not they saw an article from USA TODAY or the Tennessean. In no instance did we find differences in the effects of the “explain your process” box based on these factors.

The “demonstrating balance” box — referring readers to a pro-gun control article in a box next to an anti-gun control article, for instance — was less effective in encouraging readers to think positively about the news organization. “We cannot recommend using the ‘demonstrating balance’ box at this point because our findings were inconclusive,” the authors write.

Our first experiment had 791 participants and used the same 12 items (e.g., transparent, credible, informative, etc.) mentioned earlier to evaluate participants’ opinions about The News Beat. Participants perceived the news organization identically on all 12 items regardless of whether they saw the “demonstrating balance” box or not. There are a number of possible explanations for this finding, including that a box like the one we tested is not an effective method for demonstrating balanced news coverage in an online news site. Another possible explanation could be that the box needed to be more prominent. Nearly half the participants who were exposed to the “demonstrating balance” box did not remember seeing it.

In spite of the lack of significant findings from the first “demonstrating balance” experiment, we felt the idea warranted one more test using a different online survey vendor. This test showed that our new group of 442 participants who saw the box rated the news organization significantly higher on fairness and does not have an agenda. Further statistical tests showed that results for fairness did not hold up when we did not take into account other factors, such as participants’ political ideology or pre-existing trust in online news.

The study is here.

POSTED     Feb. 26, 2019, 10:48 a.m.
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