News credibility — not everyone sees it the same
How a two-decade-old WSU study still resonates today
The discovery was a simple one.
Erica Weintraub Austin, with the now Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, found a dramatic difference between young people and old when it comes to judging news credibility. She and her team found a generational divide in that younger people tend to judge credibility on its content, while older people are more influenced by the reputation of the story’s source. Her study helped establish a new direction for the research community when it was published in the 1994 Journal of Mass Communication.
Fast-forward now to modern-day research, in which teams now examine this phenomenon more closely, especially with viewers both young and old turning more to online news for information. In a recent edition of Columbia Journal Review, researchers asked simple questions about brand trust and what’s changing online. With so many traditional magazines now finding larger audiences in the digital spaces (60 percent of Americans, according to a Pew study), the Associated Press and the American Press Institute teamed up to see how this transformation affected trust.
Their findings were disturbing.
The study shows that only 12 percent of Americans have trust in the news they see posted on Facebook. It also revealed new factors that readers use in deciding if they should trust the content they are reading. Factors such as “number of ads around the content,” or “how long it took for the story to download,” or “clear identification of the original reporting source” now play pivotal roles in how viewers trust the content:
“… the study sheds new light on why trust matters. People who put a higher premium on trust-related factors are more engaged with news, are more likely to pay for it, install news apps, or share and promote news with their friends.”*
All of this based on the fundamental principle discovered years ago by the Murrow team — that younger generations do not share the same trust in brands as the generations that went before. When the study was first done, the Internet experience was in its infancy.
“I suspect that the generational gap has only widened, and that a general disregard for the publication when gauging news credibility is more pronounced,” said Erica Austin, researcher with the Murrow College and vice provost for Washington State University. “Follow-up research continues to reveal a generational divide: Younger test subjects seemed more likely to base their decision about whether a story was fictitious on content, while older people seemed more influenced by the source’s reputation.”
As news agencies continue to fight for relevance in this new era, the importance of establishing trust has never been more important, or more difficult. As the CJR article points out, the evidence that stood out to Austin and her team decades ago continues to resonate as a fundamental principle of this issue today.
* Read more on the AP/API study here