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Story labels alone won’t restore trust. But depending on your approach, they can help

October 9, 2019 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN@michellemanafy

An alarming number of consumers don’t trust the media. Since trust hit its all time low in 2016, the industry has been hard at work restoring this critical factor. The media industry and social platforms now employ a wide range of approaches in order to address the proliferation of inaccurate and misleading stories. Some media brands have undertaken marketing and educational efforts to help make the connection between brand and the quality of information more explicit. And labeling has been used as a means to help consumers quickly identify the source of, and type of, information they are viewing. 

This last approach — labeling — takes a classic print strategy and brings it into the digital medium. A new study from The Center for Media Engagement (CME) set out to evaluate the effectiveness of labeling stories. Unfortunately, the primary takeaway is that labeling alone does not improve consumer trust in the information before them. In fact, most of them don’t even notice labels or recall them accurately after reading an article. 

Labels alone will not restore trust

However, this is not to suggest that labeling should be abandoned altogether. Upon deeper inspection, the research found that some labels work better than others. The research also suggests that, when conceived of as explicit and even educational, labels may be effective as part of an overall trust-building strategy. 

The Center for Media Engagement’s research set out to learn:

  • Will labels affect whether readers trust a story?
  • Will readers notice and remember the labels?
  • Does the in-story explainer label work better than the above-story label?

Key findings from the research:

  • Labeling stories did not affect trust.
  • Nearly half of the participants did not notice whether the story was labeled.
  • Those who reported seeing a label were not particularly accurate in recalling the type of label. Of the two labels, recall was better for the in-story explainer label

What label?

Clearly, the research demonstrates that people glaze over most story labels (i.e. news, analysis, opinion, sponsored) if they notice them at all. Overall, 45% reported that they did not notice whether an article was labeled or not and that percentage did not vary depending on whether the article actually was labeled.

More concerning was the finding that, when asked, most people believed that the article was labeled news. This is a potentially problematic default assumption given efforts to use labels to prevent the spread of disinformation and to help consumers distinguish opinion, commentary, and satire from hard news and analysis. 

The research analyzed whether the effect of the story labels on the ability to recall the label varied based on participants’ backgrounds, including their age, race, ethnicity, education, income, gender, political ideology, and political partisanship. It is interesting to note that only one variable seemed to matter: age. The younger the participant, the more likely they were to recall the label correctly when the story was labeled news or opinion.

Explainer labels, explained

CME also compared the traditional above-story label to an in-story explainer label and no label at all. The in-story explainer label provided definitions of each label based in part on those proposed by the Trust Project.

Overall, the study found that in-story explainer labels increased the likelihood that people would recall the correct label compared to those who did not see the label and those who saw above-story labels. However, they still found that many people failed to recall whether the story they read was labeled or not. 

Sixty-three percent of those who saw an article without a label said they did not recall whether there was a label (25% correctly recalled that it was not labeled). Fifty- eight percent of those who saw an article with an above-story label could not recall whether the article was labeled (24% correctly recalled what the article was labeled). On a more encouraging note, only 24% of those who saw an article with an in-story explainer label failed to recall whether the article was labeled, and 66% correctly recalled the article label. 

More work to be done

Unfortunately, regardless of label type, the use of labels alone did not improve consumers’ view of the information’s trustworthiness. Past research from CME suggests that a combination of strategies to signal trust – such as story labels, author biographies, and descriptions of how the story was reported, can increase trust.

Given reader’s digital consumption habits, it is significant to reveal the low recall for labels, particularly those placed above the story. Other efforts, such as describing how a story was reported, in conjunction with the finding that explainer labels are somewhat more effective suggest that transparency and consumer education will be critical in restoring trust in digital information. 

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