Research on public curiosity about journalism offers ideas for building trust

Joy Mayer
Joy Mayer
Dec 4, 2019 · 5 min read

When presented with typical news stories, what questions do readers have about how and why they were reported?

That’s what a recent study from the Center for Media Engagement set out to answer. In the study, funded by the American Press Institute (one of the hosts of Trusting News), participants in focus groups read three specific stories. They then shared what questions they had about the stories and what they wanted newsrooms to do a better job of explaining.

(This study built on Trusting News research with CME last year, which showed that the use of “Explain Your Process” boxes with stories improved perceptions of the news organization.)

Two of the key issues that came up — perceptions of bias and questions about sourcing — align with our work at Trusting News. Here’s how.

Perceptions of reporter bias

Journalists are often surprised by assumptions their audience makes about the motivation behind reporting decisions. Where we see an obvious choice about sourcing, story selection or story angle, users will often see signs that our personal or political perspectives are driving our work.

Researchers Tamar Wilner, Dominique A. Montiel Valle and Gina Masullo Chen wrote about their findings:

More generally, participants raised questions about what they perceived as bias in the stories. These questions centered on the journalists’ motivations, possible affiliation with the subject of the story, and overall angle. As Tim, 46, a consultant, put it: “Well, I’m a news junkie. So I read a lot of news. And I’m always looking for underlying motive if there is any.”

As journalists, we can shrug our shoulders at that and wish people had a more sophisticated understanding of what we do or we can get to work explaining ourselves.

To tackle this issue, start by anticipating what assumptions your audience is making about your motivations and perspectives. Analyze your comments and feedback. We’re going to guess you’ll find things like …

  • I bet they didn’t cover that issue because it would have made an advertiser mad.
  • I bet they covered that meeting because it fits their political agenda.
  • They cover crime from this neighborhood more than others because they want to make us look like criminals.
  • They cover this school’s sports more often because they’re fans. What about the rest of us?

Then find ways to be proactive about describing your goals and your decision making.

Explain how you work to be fair when covering politics, as WCPO did in this explainer. Describe your consistent approach to covering crime, as KPRC did here. Remind your audience that in your coverage overall, you’ve looked at an issue from multiple perspectives, like the Jefferson City News Tribune did here. And say clearly that you’re on the lookout for bias in your work and invite feedback, as WITF did here.

Questions about sourcing

Another key area of opportunity revealed in the study is to offer clear explanations about whose voices are included in our stories.

Participants in the study wanted to know things like: Why didn’t you quote eyewitness accounts in a story about a bus crash? Why did you include a quote from Pope Francis in a story about death penalty policy? Why didn’t you talk to a bank’s customers when reporting on a financial scandal?

Maybe the eyewitnesses were gone when you arrived on the scene. Say that. Be clear about how a national religious figure ties into a local or state government story about the death penalty. And how about saying clearly whether a corporate policy story affects a bank’s customers?

Language like that can often be easily added into the text of a story. It can also go in a box next to a story (which we know can improve perceptions of credibility).

Check out this story from Science News, in which a sidebar explains both the reason the story was reported and why a key source was included. Journalists might assume readers know that when reporting on research, we rely on people not directly involved with the study to help us gauge its credibility. But does your audience know that? The box with the Science News story includes this note:

Who did we speak to? Since this research is sponsored by a company with a financial stake in the outcome, I wanted to talk to an outside expert who had no ties to the research. I felt it was most important to get a clinical perspective — is this approach really likely to help allergy sufferers? — so I contacted an expert in immunology and allergies.

What’s the downside?

In our Trusting News trainings, a question we often ask participants is why they wouldn’t want to add these transparency elements.

The most common answer we hear back is one we absolutely understand: Journalists are swamped, and this is yet another thing to think about. Our reply is usually that building trust is about journalism’s ability to survive and thrive, so we wish addressing this problem would rise to the top of the priority list.

There are sometimes other obstacles as well. Perhaps you’re not really consistent in your coverage and not really sure it’s fair, so you’re not ready to shine a light on your decision making around a topic. Or perhaps you have a lawyer warning you about making policies public.

But more commonly, the lack of adoption is about cultural barriers — it’s not a priority, or your colleagues or bosses don’t see the need for it. If that’s the situation for you, let us help.

Trusting News, staffed by Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh, is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the American Press Institute, Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation.

Joy Mayer

Written by

Joy Mayer

Engagement strategist. Director of TrustingNews.org. Adjunct faculty at Poynter. Community manager for Gather. Mom to Thing One + Thing Two. joymayer.com

Trusting News

Updates from the Trusting News project team: Follow along as we demystify trust in news and empower journalists to demonstrate credibility and actively earn trust.

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