What CJR’s Study on Trust Tells Us About Content in 2016

Thanks to the internet, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and all manner of half-truths and deceiving cons have exploded at an incredible rate. InfoWars, home of “the #1 Internet News Show in the World” and distributer of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s unique brand of paranoia, receives 5.2 million monthly unique visitors in the U.S., according to Quantcast. That’s more than vaunted news sites such as The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, NPR, and The Economist.

On the internet, the trustworthy and the unsavory have the same toolset to distribute their content. Now, sites based on half-truths and fabrications can build audiences just as easily as mainstream publishers—and internet users know it.

According to a 2015 AP study, only 12 percent of Facebook news consumers have “a lot of trust” for “the news they see there.” That’s pretty alarming, considering that a recent eMarketer report found that 50 percent of the U.S. population is on Facebook, and Pew’s 2016 “State of the Media” report showed that 66 percent of American Facebook users get some amount of news on the social platform.

For publishers, consumer trust is harder to come by than ever. But what, exactly, determines trust? And how can publishers earn it?

The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) recently set out to answer those questions by surveying previous studies and conducting an experiment.

People don’t judge quality content the way media experts do

One of the most brutal lines from the first part of CJR’s twopart study, which was conducted by three fellows of the George T. Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism, takes aim at the average consumer’s media education.

According to the researchers, “Brands are essential to journalism in part because evidence suggests that consumers are inept judges of quality.” CJR, citing a 2013 study by German researchers Wolfgang Schweiger and Juliane Urban, suggests that:

Readers struggled to evaluate comprehensibility, ethics, and objectivity. When readers spent longer on a story, brands mattered less. When it was difficult for readers to identify quality differences, pre-existing opinions of the brands became more influential to their assessments.

In other words, most people either can’t identify or don’t care enough to identify poor writing, poor sourcing, or overt bias. It’s a telling result, and one that helps explain, at least in part, the rise of websites like InfoWars.

The finding is disturbing for legacy brands that rely so much on trust. Arthur O. Sulzberger, former publisher of The New York Times, famously said, “You’re not buying news when you buy The New York Times. You’re buying judgment.”

That may still be true, but what “experts” consider key factors that determine trust in media simply don’t apply anymore.

Superficial factors like brand and design are key

As Schweiger and Urban noted in their 2013 study, people often fall back on pre-existing notions of a brand’s reputation when trying to gauge trustworthiness. Design—the presentation of a story—also plays a critical role in building trust, despite having little to no impact on the content of a story.

Per CJR:

In 2003, researchers at Stanford University asked more than 2,600 people to analyze the credibility of two websites. They found that visual design elements were given the most consideration, with little attention paid to content or source. “People typically process web information in superficial ways,” they concluded, adding that “using peripheral cues is the rule of web use, not the exception.”

The results from CJR’s own experiment led to similar conclusions. The researchers took a longform Mother Jones story and dressed it up either as a New Yorker story, a BuzzFeed story, or a story in a fictional magazine called The Review, which served as the control and had a design similar to The Washington Post.

In general, people claimed that the story was more trustworthy when it had the trappings of The New Yorker. The publication’s recognizable design and reputation for extremely high-quality writing meant that people were more likely to trust it. BuzzFeed was not far behind, however, which the researchers attribute to the reputation of the company’s respected news wing.

There are some limitations to the study, however, which the researchers readily admit. The New Yorker and BuzzFeed are among the most unique brands in media, and it would be misleading to apply the results across the industry.

Additionally, other studies have suggested that The New Yorker and BuzzFeed actually have poor levels of trust compared to other news brands. The New Yorker’s trust-to-distrust ratio is middle of the pack, according to a Pew survey of web respondents that looked at 36 publishers. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, came in last, though this study was done in 2014, long before its news branch began to revive its reputation.

Since CJR gives little reasoning for why it chose these two publishers—or why it didn’t include more options—it’s difficult to derive significant insights from the experiment alone.

Expectations matter—a lot

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from CJR’s report is that expectations play a huge, and often forgotten, role in media trust.

The researchers cited multiple studies that showed setting proper expectations is critical for long-term success when it comes to marketing. For example, people told in study that balsamic was added to a beer “were significantly more likely to find the drink distasteful” than those who were not. CJR continues: “Learning about a product beforehand changes the experience itself, rather than simply swaying our interpretation of the experience in retrospect.”

Every time someone interacts with your brand, their expectations evolve.

For content marketers, the takeaway here is clear. Content—and marketing in general—can be the balsamic vinegar to your brand’s beer. But it can also be that special flavor that makes the beer taste even better.

That psychology plays out when people rank a story on The New Yorker as more trustworthy than the exact same one on BuzzFeed. The reputation of each brand changed the way the consumer experienced an identical product.

Every time someone interacts with your brand, their expectations evolve. It’s an effect of marketing that is difficult to quantify—but it’s one that can’t be forgotten.

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