Research: Audience participation, story explanation increase trust in TV news

By Katalina Deaven

Center for Media Engagement

Austin, Texas, USA

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News organisations continue to face problems with public trust. The Center for Media Engagement has studied several approaches to helping newsrooms tackle this problem. In this study, we partnered with Trusting News and WCPO 9, the ABC affiliate in Cincinnati, Ohio, to test three new methods for building trust in television news:

  • An introduction that described how and why the story was reported.
  • A conclusion that encouraged audience participation or provided resources.
  • A description of the station’s overall mission for the story, provided in the middle of the report.

The results revealed four steps newsrooms can take to gain audience trust.

Focus groups indicated there are four steps newsrooms can take to build trust with their readers.
Focus groups indicated there are four steps newsrooms can take to build trust with their readers.

Exploring the findings

To test these three methods, focus group participants watched news stories that originally aired on WCPO 9 and then watched a second version of the stories with the trust items added in. Though participants couldn’t always pinpoint the differences between the two versions, they did generally prefer the stories with trust elements and believed those stories provided more context and more personal connection.

Of the three trust elements we tested, two were preferred by viewers: an introduction that explained why the story was done and a conclusion that invited audience participation. For the introductory element, one story explained it was a “story about local people sharing their personal experiences to help others.” The other story — about a police officer’s arrest — added that the alleged threats he made were against his wife and her boyfriend.

Though mostly liked by viewers, some people believed the introduction was an obvious and unnecessary explanation. Newsrooms might be able to avoid this impression by making sure the introductions provide helpful and valuable information. Even though it wasn’t included in a story with trust elements, we do want to point out that people had strong negative reactions to the introduction that pointed out exclusivity. This suggests that labelling stories as exclusives may not be appealing to viewers, even though it’s a tactic commonly used by newsrooms.

The second trust element preferred by viewers — inviting audience participation — was demonstrated in two ways. One story provided station contact information and invited viewers to reach out about community events. The other story provided a resource in the form of a domestic abuse hotline number. The two approaches, both well-received, show there’s more than one way to utilise this trust element.

Viewer reactions were mixed to the news mission explainer in the middle of the story. In one story, this element was posed as a general statement: “At WCPO, we work to gather the most complete information available about the issues impacting our communities.” In the other story, this section explained the story was being covered because it involved a “police officer, someone who has power and authority in our community.” Positive reactions to this trust element noted that it was a good way to clearly explain why the station was covering the story. Some people, however, thought the additional information took away from the story.

A note of caution for newsrooms: Though most participants preferred the stories with trust elements, some people thought the added information seemed like “extra fluff.” Though this belief was shared by a minority of viewers, it does suggest newsrooms should take great care to make sure the trust elements provide value and context. Make the story stronger — not longer.

Takeaways for newsrooms

Based on our focus group findings, we recommend newsrooms take four steps while writing stories:

  1. Explain why the story is being done and make it clear why the explanation is being provided.
  2. Encourage audience participation at the conclusion of the story.
  3. Keep trust items brief and to the point.
  4. Be cautious of describing stories as exclusive.

As previously noted, the key to adding these trust elements is to make sure the content provides value and context to the narrative. Otherwise, newsrooms run the risk of being perceived as adding “fluff” to news stories.

If looking for additional ways to build trust, newsrooms can revisit our studies that recommend using an “explain your process“ box or providing a series of trust elements like reporter bios, story labels, and links to information about news outlets’ policies on ethics, diversity, and correction.

About Katalina Deaven

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