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Oct. 31, 2019, 6 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Twenty-six Texans walk into a room…

… and discuss news articles. As part of five focus groups with the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, researchers Tamar Wilner, Dominique A. Montiel Valle, and Gina Masullo Chen went straight to a (pretty diverse mix) of non-journalism folks to get their questions on recent journalism. It was part of an academic look at the inquiries journalists leave open-ended for their readers. How could news outlets better preemptively address readers’ wonders or concerns?

Earlier this year, the center shared findings on how adding a “how we did this reporting” box alongside an article improves the perception of a news organization:

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.”

This study brought in a mix of Texans (a third were infrequent news consumers, sometimes known as news avoiders) to review three articles from local and national newspapers. The main questions they felt were still unanswered:

  1. Can you explain more?

    Dig deeper into circumstances around the news story or take a more investigative…. “The article is about Wells Fargo releasing their internal report and what Wells Fargo wants you to know [is what] they’re doing to make things better without any depth on, is this really going to happen, or what the real issues were, or is it just a, you know, puff piece?” asked Oscar, 50, a project manager.

  2. Can you break that down?

    Explain specialized terminology…. After reading the story about a fatal bus crash, participants wanted to know why the bus driver was not arrested. The story reported that a police search warrant indicated she may have been impaired while driving but that she had not been charged with a crime. Participants wanted more explanation of police procedures in this story.

  3. Why did/didn’t you include this voice?

    Explain why certain sources were included while others were left out…. After reading the piece about the death penalty, Toni, 58, questioned why the newspaper included a quote from Pope Francis, “And then at the very end, just kind of popping in, ‘Pope Francis weighed in on the topic.’ And is that relevant?”

    “Like I wonder now if the relationship between the reporter and the bank Wells Fargo – because one thing I noticed is there’s absolutely no quotes in here from anyone outside of the Wells Fargo system. Like there’s no quotes from customers,” said Preston, 22, a college student.

  4. Is this biased?

    Guard against what the readers saw as bias, which they described as potentially cozy relationships between writer and subject…. Newsrooms should consider providing a statement of independence, stating a lack of relationship with story sources. Newsrooms could also clarify key information about how and why the story was reported up-front or in a box within the story.

Not every article is going to be a giant explainer, and even those that are aren’t given a full peruse by news consumers. Leftover questions are inevitable, but these are the most common questions that could be easily answered — perhaps by a “how we did this reporting” sidebox. The full report is available here.

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