Highlights from SXSW: 7 steps to building trust and credibility with an online audience

Doreen Marchionni spent the last four years studying how journalists can boost their credibility and engagement with digital audiences. She found the simple secret: Interact online and be human.

However, she says, it takes more than simply having a Twitter account and posting story links. “When your audience is able to participate and influence the outcome of a story,” that is conversational journalism, she told me by phone last week.

Marchionni, who studied the topic for her Ph.D. at the University of Missouri in 2009, now teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, and is an editor at The Seattle Times. She discusses the findings of her doctoral dissertation Tuesday at SXSW.

Her presentation will focus on practical tips newsrooms can take to increase interaction, trust and audience for news websites. Below are her suggestions for journalists.

Use the tools of the Internet to commit journalism.

Reporters need to be on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Taking simple steps such as crowdsourcing story ideas or encouraging feedback increases a reporter’s credibility with a digital audience, Marchionni found in her research.

And, having a Twitter account that mixes appropriate personal messages along with work-related tweets can let the audience see the “person behind the news,” which also builds trust.

“This is a very uncomfortable idea for mainstream journalists,” she said. But it is a critical element in reader engagement online.

Provide online bio pages with photos.

Many news websites have inadequate “contact us” pages, and Marchionni suggests that staff directories should be improved to include both photos and short biographical sketches.

Providing photos, as columnists often do, allows readers to measure their “perceived similarity” to a journalist. This analysis includes both intellectual viewpoints on a topic as well as demographic factors. Audiences subconsciously use this information to judge the news they receive.

Marchionni said that in her studies, this factor was the most influential in determining the trust and credibility readers attributed to a news source.

Readers, she said, “perceive news in which they can sense the person behind the news as highly credible and highly expert.”

Produce reporter-focused short videos.

Similarly, journalists need to present themselves in videos on their websites. Even more than a still photo, video communicates to an audience that a reporter is a real person, not a “data spewing automaton,” Marchionni said.

In her studies she refers to this as having a “social presence” and it is another key to building trust with readers.

Marchionni reports past studies have shown TV news surpasses print in credibility ratings due to TV journalists appearing more human by virtue of their media.

“If news people want to sustain and build credibility with audiences, especially in the multi-platform world of news websites,” she said,  “they need to put themselves out there in videos.”

Look to columnists and the Sports Department for cues.

Columnists, often take a conversational tone, use fact-based analysis and portray a strong public persona. This approach provides  a roadmap for other reporters to look to, Marchionni said.

She is not suggesting opinion-based reporting, but rather bringing more voice and perspective to typical news writing. According to her findings, a news column is very similar to the narrative style that engages online readers.

Marchionni also suggests looking to sports departments as role models of reader engagement. They are “are often at the vanguard for innovation in newsrooms and they never get credit for it,” she said.

Due to the rabid fan bases involved, Marchionni says sports reporters have been thrown into contact with readers more than other news reporters are. As a result, they have been ahead of the curve in learning to “navigate relationships with audiences.”

Marchionni highlights the efforts of reporters such as ESPN’s Mike Sando, who she worked with at The (Tacoma) News Tribune. Sando covers the National Football League’s NFC West division and blogs prolifically on the topic, including using short video segments to answer reader questions.

Bring audiences into the process.

Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and other online networks can be used to reach out to readers for story ideas and sourcing. But, Marchionni also points to the example set by Minnesota Public Radio with its Public Insight Journalism (PIJ) initiative.

The PIJ website allows listeners to fill out a biography that highlights their individual areas of expertise. Members of the group are then available as sources to be contacted by the network’s reporters. The site reports more than 99,000 people have registered to be part of the project.

Don’t forget to close the loop.

When a newsroom does engage with readers, and invites early participation in the newsgathering process, Marchionni says it is important to publicly note that interaction.

“You must tell audiences that you did it,” she said, and that you will continue to gather information via those digital networks.

In her studies, Marchionni said she put an editor’s note at the top of stories that were crowdsourced, explaining how that process worked. And she recommends including the appropriate attribution – “contacted though Twitter” – within the text of the story as well.

She found that readers respond very positively to that audience involvement and transparency of process.

Balance formal and informal tones carefully.

Readers are accepting of a more informal, friendly tone in online writing, but it is a fine line to walk.

Marchionni found that humor, even snark, can be well regarded by digital audiences when applied appropriately. That helps enhance a sense that a “real person” is behind the news.

However, being too informal or conversational in a more serious story leads readers to question the authority and expertise of the journalist.

“You still want to maintain some level of authority and formality,” she said. Audiences can be very sensitive to that.

She points to the Seattle Times weather blog, led by Jack Broom, as an example of how to strike that balance. A recent brief with the forecast was lead with:

“The forecast is plain: We’ll get rain and then rain.”

But, a story predicting potentially damaging winds followed standard AP style more closely:

“The Puget Sound area could be battered by gusts of up to 50 mph, and sustained winds of 20 to 30 mph, in a storm expected to hit the area Thursday afternoon, creating the potential for widespread power outages.”

Marchionni believes that as reporters take on publishing responsibilities, via Twitter or on the Web, it is crucial they appreciate this balance and learn to correctly target their style of writing appropriately.

She said the best reporters will pick it up it quickly, but, “they are going to have to learn how to be extraordinarily nuanced self-editors.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jack Broom’s last name.

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