The public’s perception of a news outlet’s trustworthiness may come down to branding rather than content, according to a recently released study from the Knight Foundation and Gallup.
The study used data from a specially designed news aggregation platform called NewsLense to test participants’ perceptions and interactions with articles from outlets identified as either “sympathetic,” “no lean,” or “adversarial.”
Participants were twice as likely to share articles from sympathetic outlets when the source of the article was known, compared with slightly more likely when the source was hidden. They were also more likely to rate stories from adversarial outlets as low quality when the source was known compares to when it was hidden. In some cases, they gave higher quality rankings to adversarial sources when the source was hidden.
Partisanship did play a role when it came to news consumption, but not as drastically as sharing. Study participants were slightly more likely to read articles from sympathetic outlets than adversarial when they knew which outlet it came from. For the group where the outlet was hidden, participants almost evenly consumed articles from sympathetic and adversarial outlets.
Researchers used the study data to develop a “community score” of each article — using participant feedback to rank each article’s quality. The researchers found that participants were able to come to a community consensus about the quality and reliability of a news article when controlled for factors like partisan bias.
“The key advantage to such an approach compared to source-level ratings like NewsGuard is recognition that not all content from a news outlet is equally good or bad journalism,” the report’s authors wrote. They suggested more research needs to be done to see if these findings hold up outside the study-controlled environment, but added this kind of model is scalable and could be incorporated by other news aggregators and social media platforms.
John Sands, the Knight Foundation’s director of learning and impact, said the NewsLense aggregator gave researchers a new tool to more accurately measure participants’ interactions with news content.
“Most research in the media trust space is based on self-reported survey data,” Sands said. These surveys rely on users to look backward to report on their media consumption habits rather than giving researchers information out how study participants reacted in real-time. Social media companies, other news aggregators, and news organizations do have access to real-time data, but Sands said that information is rarely shared with researchers. “So we built this platform to get around some of the methodological challenges of understanding media trust.”
Sands said the report bolsters previous scholarship on media trust by giving researchers a more empirical model for approaching similar conclusions. “It’s another way of identifying and naming phenomenon that folks who’ve been studying media trust for a long time have been doing with other means,” he said.