News reporting isn’t enough

Building trust with news consumers requires conversation too

Adam Smith
Mar 27 · 4 min read
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Social media were supposed to make society better, but they may have just made us all angrier. For a long time in my job on social media for The Economist this problem has troubled me. I work for a newspaper that seeks to offer a rational and respectful view on what’s happening every week, every day, all around the world. We hope that doing this helps us retain the trust of readers, and earn the trust of new ones.

But what if the internet has become so ill-mannered that just being even-handed in our reporting is not enough?

We have sought to do more by making small attempts to converse with our audience too. And new research shows that this kind of engagement does indeed give us a better shot at building trust. The research is published in the paper, “Civility and trust in social media”, in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation. Here’s what the paper argues.

People assume that the interaction they encounter online will be uncivil. So when they experience incivility, it is essentially a neutral or status-quo experience and it doesn’t change their ability to trust others. But if they experience civility, it is a positive experience that raises their ability to trust others. News reporting without any social interaction is similar to the first category. A person who reads a news report without the option of interacting with the organisation that produced the report is just a passive consumer. As such, their ability to trust that organisation more is left unchanged.

The researchers found this out during an experiment that involved showing online content to a bunch of people who were split into three groups. One group was shown some real threads of uncivil discussion. Another group was shown the same threads but with the uncivil discussions replaced with polite interactions. The third group saw news excerpts on the same topic as the discussions shown to the other two groups, but with no social interaction. To assess the trust and trustworthiness of the people in the different groups, the experimenters then made them play a game to test how much they trusted others.

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The results are fascinating. The levels of trust among the first group, who saw uncivil conversation on Facebook, did not change. Ditto the third group who saw news excerpts with no conversation around them. These experiences were the status quo: people expect to meet angry people online and don’t generally expect to interact with news stories. But the middle group, who saw civil Facebook interaction that I assume was similar to the kind we see in our moderated Facebook Groups, became significantly more trusting. They may not have expected to encounter civil conversation, but when they did it acted as a model for them. The results of the game showed that these people trusted others more.

To me this research suggests that although The Economist has built a trustworthy reputation through its well-researched, fact-checked writing, more can be done. Engaging civilly around our writing is yet another way to build trust, especially amid the mayhem otherwise found online. I’d expect that those people who trust each other more through engaging with our news content also find themselves more likely to trust the source of that content too.

To that end, we’ve hosted dialogue debates, created Facebook Groups with heavy moderation, and held Q&As with our writers. Civility and dialogue underpin all of this activity. This is how we engage, on top of our standard mode of just writing and publishing, going from monologue to dialogue, as it were. The research above can be interpreted as showing that civil conversation helps people to trust us more.

People have long trusted The Economist, but in an era of eroding trust this experiment shows us that we have an opportunity to build even more trust by engaging more. If we are committed to promoting a civil mode of discussion and in building trust with our audiences, quality journalism will only get us so far. We need to do civil conversation too.

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Adam Smith

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Writer, talker, thinker and maker. Podcasting @ Karl’s Kaschemme.

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Insights from The Economist’s digital playbook