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Research: what readers want in a story

By Katalina Deaven

Center for Media Engagement

Austin, Texas, USA


What questions do readers have about your stories? Taking their answers into account during the reporting process can better connect readers to your content and build trust.

To this end, the Center for Media Engagement wanted to help newsrooms get ahead of the most common concerns, so we went straight to the source: the readers.

Recent research indicates four improvements readers want from news coverage.
Recent research indicates four improvements readers want from news coverage.

For this study, we asked a diverse group of participants in five focus groups to give feedback on a series of news stories. The improvements they wanted newsrooms to make fell into four main categories.

1. Dig deeper into stories.

“Digging deeper” is perhaps an overused news phrase, but it gets to the core of what readers are looking for in a story. Participants in our focus groups often felt the stories presented to them in this study seemed unfinished or superficial. Many readers wanted the reporting to go beyond the basic elements of the story.

To address this concern, we recommend newsrooms take a critical look at their reporting and make sure it attempts to fully explore all aspects of the story. This might include explaining background information, providing context beyond the facts of the latest update, and taking an investigative approach whenever possible.

2. Explain terminology.

This is a concern all reporters are aware of, but addressing it thoroughly requires taking a step back and thinking about whether the average reader would have a full understanding of all the terms in a story. This applies to journalistic terms and procedures that are part of your everyday vocabulary but not entirely familiar to your audience. It also extends to the industries discussed in your story.

To help with this concern, newsrooms should consider detailing the processes and procedures associated with the story in addition to avoiding industry jargon.

3. Explain source choices.

Readers don’t have an inside look at your reporting process. They don’t know why you ended up with certain interviews and not others, who declined to speak, or who did not answer your request for an interview. Participants in our focus groups frequently questioned reporters’ decisions to include or exclude specific voices. At times, they felt the people quoted in the story seemed irrelevant while more critical voices were left out. This was an issue readers often associated with a perceived imbalance in the reporting.

It’s important for newsrooms to include a variety of voices in the story, and, perhaps more importantly, explain why certain voices were chosen and why others were left out or unavailable.

4. Guard against bias.

Questions about bias centered on the journalists’ motivations, possible affiliation with the subject of the story, and overall angle.

One way to guard against perceived bias is for newsrooms to provide a statement of independence that makes it clear you have no relationship with story sources. You could also clarify key information about how and why the story was reported upfront or in a box within the story. We’ve covered the benefits of providing a box that explains your process in a previous study.

Bottom line for newsrooms

Readers will always have questions, and there are countless ways newsrooms can go about addressing concerns. If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few key improvements we recommend:

  • Provide more context in stories, give background information, and link to previous coverage.
  • Explain key terminology and government or police processes.
  • Include a wide range of relevant sources and thoroughly explain source choices.
  • Provide a statement of independence, stating lack of relationship with sources.
  • Place key information up-front or in a box within the story.

About Katalina Deaven

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