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
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
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.
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
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