We know it’s important for people to understand what type of news story they’re reading. Many newsrooms add a label like news, analysis, opinion, or sponsored content to help make it clear.

But do readers actually notice these labels? And do the labels help increase trust?

Our new research says no. We found the labels we tested don’t work when used alone, but that doesn’t mean your newsroom should stop using them. You might just need to change your strategy.

Types of labels tested

It’s important to note this study was not an exhaustive test of all types of labels. We looked at two kinds of labels and considered only two effects: recall and trust. Studying other types of labels and other effects might produce different results. The two labels we examined were above-story and in-story.

Above-story labels are used by many organizations.
Above-story labels are used by many organizations.

The above-story label is more traditional and used by many news organisations. This style of label is placed at the top of the story, above the headline.

In-story labels describe the type of story.
In-story labels describe the type of story.

The in-story label is placed under the headline and describes the type of story, rather than just labeling it. The definitions of the labels in our study were based in part on those proposed by the Trust Project.

For example, an in-story label for sponsored content might read: “This article is sponsored content. Sponsored content may look somewhat like a news, opinion, or analysis article, but it is produced on behalf of, at the behest of, or by an individual organization that has paid the news provider for its placement. It does not meet the standards of impartial journalism.”

What we found

Neither type of label increased trust in the news story. In fact, many readers did not even notice if the story was labeled. Those who did were not very accurate in remembering the type of label. When it comes to above-story versus in-story, more readers correctly recalled the in-story label.

What can newsrooms do?

Don’t give up on labels just yet. Our research show labels alone don’t affect trust, but this doesn’t mean you should stop using them. As our research suggests, try using the in-story label, which is better for recall. Make sure your label is placed in a highly-visible location.

Consider using labels with a combination of other trust strategies:

  • Providing journalist bios.
  • Including footnotes for citations.
  • Writing a description of how and why the story was reported.
  • Noting involvement in the Trust Project, an international consortium of news organisations.

Labels may not work well alone, but our past research shows combining them with these additional strategies can increase trust.