April 4, 2022

Readers who say they don’t trust the news and purposely consume little of it often may simply be written off, but there is a key to catching their attention: Do it quickly.

That’s the conclusion of the latest in a series of studies of trust issues by the Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford, with the summary title “Snap Judgments.”

The light and skeptical readers do have a way of navigating information on platforms — just not the ones serious journalists may suppose, according to the Reuters authors. As they scroll through material, they are looking for cues that engage or miss their interests, and their preconceptions do factor in.

Headlines and comments, along with graphics and photos, are crucial. Plus, even if such a reader will rarely plunge deep into a story, they may take at least something away from that brief scan.

For this study, the Reuters researchers did 100 in-depth interviews with self-described mistrustful news consumers in four countries. They may not encounter much news on platforms like Facebook, Google and WhatsApp, the report summarizes, and, “when they do … they typically draw on limited information, making snap judgments rooted in prior views about the media landscape and quick shortcuts based on how these links appear.”

The first study in the Reuters series identified widespread mistrust, most severe in the United States among 47 countries surveyed.

Two more, based on a series of interviews with top editors, found them conceding that most of their trust efforts were targeted at holding existing readers and that the result may be serving the affluent while letting other audience segments slide.

This study does not minimize the difficulty but says such reluctant readers may be drawn in by characteristics of individual platforms — likes on Facebook or rank order of searches on Google. They are searching for relevance to their daily lives and generally pass by stories they deem too political or depressing.

I was surprised that some of the readers, despite their light interest, offered a detailed account of what they do consume. For instance, a 25-year-old from the U.S. was put off by inflammatory headlines: “A formula I would use to determine what is a very biased news source, I’d look at how are headlines being framed. Or how are, how is the writing being framed? Like, if they’re intentionally intending to be incendiary or if they’re intentionally written to be very attention-grabbing.”

A young U.K. reader looked to graphic treatments: “I don’t really trust the major news outlets, I really like to have a video that someone’s taken on their phone, and they’re actually there, present, at that moment in time. So, it doesn’t matter what the people are telling you, you can take that at face value. This is with your own eyes, and it’s unedited, and it’s the full video.”

An older U.S. reader said the right photo was key to interest as well as credibility: “I am a visual person, and so if there’s imagery, that will catch my eye, and then I’ll read the headline. If there’s no imagery, I may just run right past it.”

I asked lead author Amy Ross Arguedas to summarize the implications for the platform companies and publishers. She replied by email that platform companies could do more to highlight credible news in their stream of content but probably won’t. “Different platforms have different priorities,” she wrote, “and some of them, such as relevance or engagement, may sometimes be more important to platforms than trust in news.”

How about publishers? They “may want to think more carefully about how decisions concerning things like headline wording and tone … or the use of images … may impact trust perceptions. Our findings also point toward the value of more sustained and consistent efforts to improve brand recognition given the key role of familiarity.”

Does this imply that for the mistrustful reader, craft and sound journalism practice within the stories are secondary?

“This doesn’t mean that things like journalistic rigor or transparency don’t hold value in and of themselves,” Arguedas wrote, “or that they aren’t helpful for more engaged segments of the public, but that these kinds of efforts (or evidence of them) are too far downstream from the aspects untrusting and disengaged audiences are often basing their judgments on to have a real impact.”

As with the rest of the Reuters work, I think this latest sheds light on one of the many facets of the much-debated trust issue: It is facile to think that the big subset of readers disinclined to believe most journalism can be won over by redoubling efforts at good reporting and writing alone.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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