Mental shortcuts, snap judgments, gut feelings: everyone uses these to some degree while navigating an increasingly overwhelming news landscape. However, new research finds that these instant reactions are even more prevalent among the 25% of the population with the lowest trust in news. Low trust audiences are more likely to receive the bulk of their news incidentally while engaged in other online activities such as socializing, shopping, or searching for specific information pertinent to their daily lives. Significantly, low trust aligns with low interest. These individuals are unlikely to visit news sites on purpose. They are also the least-studied segment of the population when it comes to news-related behavior.
It is important that content providers understand the impact of snap judgments because they occur upstream of further engagement with news material. Research from the Trust in News Project out of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford offers insights based upon an exploration of the behaviors and habits of this audience segment.
News, cues, and clues
The report, Snap judgements: how audiences who lack trust in news navigate information on digital platforms was based upon a qualitative study that involved participants from four countries: Brazil, India, the United Kingdom and the United States. One hundred individuals were interviewed in depth via videoconference as they used one of three platforms: Google, Facebook, or WhatsApp, between December 2021 and January 2022.
Six types of cues were found to serve as as shortcuts for evaluating news:
- Pre-existing ideas about news in general or particular news media brands, including reputation and perceived reliability of the news outlet.
- Social endorsement cues, especially from friends and family.
- Tone and word choice of headlines, with a skepticism for headlines that seem sensationalized.
- Visual cues, with a preference for photographs and videos perceived as recent and relevant, as well as numerical data and links to other sources.
- Presence of advertising or indications of sponsored content are often seen as indicative of bias and profit-driven motives.
- Platform-specific cues such as Facebook likes and Google search engine rankings. (insert cues graphic)
Comfort and control
The study found low-trust individuals have much more favorable opinions of Google, Facebook and WhatsApp than they do of professional news sources. They consider these platforms valuable tools used in everyday life, whereas many stated most news is irrelevant to them. In fact, some perceive news as an attempt to manipulate them; many stated that politicians control major news sources. In “shoot the messenger” fashion, low-trust users tend to conflate content they dislike or find upsetting with news journalists or brands.
News reports on hot topics such as politics and issues that have become politically charged such as the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic are viewed with particular skepticism by the sample group. Participants indicated that content providers have more incentive to be untruthful about such topics.
Low-trust users are more likely to look favorably upon information presented in a manner perceived as enabling them to make up their own minds. Some participants cited the presence of numerical data or links to other sources as indications that news was reliable, while others praised Google search results as such a resource.
Addressing the audience gap
While some of the 25% have overtly hostile feelings towards news organizations, indifference is more to blame for lack of engagement. Lack of knowledge in how journalism works is also a factor. Those aware of their limited knowledge may be less confident in their ability to decipher content and more likely to ignore it altogether or rely on opinions of trusted social contacts.
Trust-building strategies employed by digital news organizations tend to focus on the behavior and practices of the savviest news consumers. This makes sense if the goal is to solidify one’s base. However, expanding outreach requires more understanding of the less-engaged 25%. Building relationships with new user groups requires deeper understanding of how they engage with their platforms of choice.
This research is significant for digital media providers because it represents data from the least-studied segment of the population, and because the findings are not limited to this group. While some of the cues relied on by these users are under exclusive control of digital platforms, others can be utilized by news providers. The study has compelling implications for how information can best be conveyed to those hardest to reach.