What do readers wish they understood about your reporting — and what do these gaps mean for your efforts at building news literacy and trust? These questions, which the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin tackled in our latest research, reveal that people want journalists to dig more deeply in their reporting, define specialized terms in stories, explain why certain sources were quoted or avoided, and guard against bias.
Our research was inspired by this essay by the American Press Institute’s Tom Rosenstiel and Jane Elizabeth, which argues convincingly that outlets must use their stories to improve readers’ “news fluency” — an organic understanding of what the news is, how it’s made, and how to distinguish reliable from unreliable news. The way to do this, Rosenstiel and Elizabeth say, is by anticipating and answering the questions that readers likely have about the outlet’s reporting, such as: What is new here? What evidence is there? What sources did you talk to and why? What facts don’t we know yet? What, if anything, is still in dispute?
We thought: Are those the questions readers are likely to have? Let’s find out!
To investigate, we held five focus groups in Austin and Dallas, Tex. In each group we presented participants with three news articles, one local and two national. After each story, we asked, “What questions do you have about how this news story was reported or written?”
Based on what we found, we’re encouraging newsrooms to:
- Make stories more contextual. For example, link to previous coverage.
- Define terms and explain government or police processes.
- Include a wide range of relevant sources and explain source choices.
- Make it clear that your reporters are independent of sources.
- Place key information so it’s easy for readers to see.
This research is just the beginning. These findings represent the first step in what could be a productive and revealing line of research. Since we only spoke to people in Texas, and because this is a qualitative study, its findings aren’t readily generalizable. We’re eager to hear what questions people have in other locations, looking at other stories.
Could that be your hometown and your stories? We did this in a research setting, but your news organization can also do it on your own, to the benefit of your day-to-day work. We encourage you to ask your own readers what questions they have about the news reporting and writing process. Consider asking for reader questions through an online form linked on certain stories, emailing and calling readers who have already contacted you looking for clarity, or bringing readers into your newsroom (or a café, or a public library) to ask them in person. Our research suggests that the answers will be valuable to your organization.
The stakes are high. As Mollie Muchna, new team member of Reynolds Journalism Institute and American Press Institute’s Trusting News project, recently put it: “When we don’t explain the reasoning behind our decisions, we leave it up to readers to make their own assumptions. Spoiler: Those assumptions are usually not in our favor.” First asking what audiences don’t understand can help us be even more effective at avoiding that problem. It may help earn the trust of readers, a mission Trusting News helps news organizations pursue.
We’re eager to hear what you learn when you ask your own audiences what about your work is confusing or concerning to them. And we’d love to include your news organization in our continuing research about the questions readers have about the news. If you’re interested in getting help to test these concepts in your newsroom and measure outcomes, please drop API and myself a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.