UT Austin study suggests process boxes can boost audience trust

by | Mar 19, 2019 | Blog, What We're Reading

Audiences rated news stories with a box explaining their process as more trustworthy than articles without.

Building Trust: What Works for News Organizations
University of Texas at Austin Center for Media Engagement
By Gina Masullo Chen, Alex Curry and Kelsey Whipple
Feb. 26, 2019

Sure, there are tons of trust-building tactics out there, but how can journalists be sure that they actually work? Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin released a new study on the effectiveness of two trust-building strategies: showing audiences the journalistic approach through an “Explain your process” box and proving they give different perspectives equal coverage through a “Demonstrating balance” box to news stories.

Researchers created three sites for the project: one mock news site, The News Beat, which they tested first, and then two sites designed to look exactly like USA Today and the Tennessean. They found adding an “Explain your process” box to a story improved people’s perception of the news organization. In one example, the process box included a “Why and how we’re covering this topic” title and sections on “Why we’re doing this story,” “How we’re doing this story” and “Our approach to covering crime.”

Participants perceived a story with this box as “significantly more reliable” than the same one without the box and gave the news organization high ratings on 11 out of 12 attributes of trust. The one trust attribute that did not have a significantly higher rating was “does not have an agenda,” suggesting that the box adds credibility but not does eliminate suspicions about media motives.

While the researchers suggest news organizations should consider incorporating “Explain your process” boxes, they did not recommend adding the “Demonstrating balance” box due to inconclusive results. They encourage news organizations to continue experimenting with practices for building trust with their audiences.

Key Numbers

  • News stories with the “Explain your process” box scored significantly higher on trust attributes: For example, with the box, participants rated the story as 3.4 in the category “Tells the whole story,” yet without the box, they gave that category a 2.9.
  • Researchers found that the 442 participants who saw the “Demonstrating balance” box rated the news site higher on trust attributes of “fairness” and “does not have an agenda.”

Study Details

  • For the two process box experiments, 1,312 total people participated; 1,233 total people participated in the two balance box experiments.
  • Study participants rated the stories on 12 different trusting news things from a 1-to-5 scale: transparent/not transparent, informative/not informative, accurate/not accurate, not credible/credible, biased/not biased, fair/not fair, cannot be trust/can be trusted, tells the whole story/does not tell the whole story, does not have integrity/has integrity, reliable/unreliable, does not have an agenda/has an agenda and not reputable/reputable.