Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

How people decide what news to trust on digital platforms and social media

Digital formats provide distinctly different opportunities for people to engage with news and information than do traditional print and broadcast media formats. In doing so, they also provide new ways in which consumers can evaluate a news source. In much the way misspellings and grammatical errors do for text, or dead air might in broadcast, factors such as load times, mobile compatibility, and ad placement may now serve as indicators for consumers to evaluate a source’s competence on digital platforms.

In the survey, 66 percent of Americans report that they get news of any type from a computer and 63 percent from a smartphone. In all, 46 percent of people report receiving news in a digital form (a website, app, or email alert) from at least one of the sources they use to closely follow one of their topics of interest.

“My day is very busy, and I have very little patience for news that is flawed with inaccurate info,” said Robert, a younger, hard news consumer. “Also, I do not have patience for websites so cluttered with ads that it interrupts my reading.”

Majorities of these digital news consumers cite three specific factors of digital presentation as critical to whether they rely on a news source. Those factors are the behavior and placement of digital ads, load times, and how well a site works on a mobile device.

Other features of online news are less important to digital news consumers, including interactive features and links to additional content.

But, as with the actionable and specific factors related to trust, the relative importance of these digital features changes, depending on the topic. How well the page works on mobile, for example, matters more often for news on traffic and weather than for news on national politics.

Social media platforms are another way that many people access news online. In the survey, a majority of Americans (51 percent) told us they now get news on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Of these, Facebook is by far the most frequently cited social media platform for getting news.

When it comes to trust, many people who receive news from these social media platforms consume it with skepticism. Social media news consumers do not generally trust the news they see there. As a result, they consider a variety of factors to adjudicate whether a particular story can be trusted. The most important are their perceptions of the original news source and also the person who posted the item.

For online news consumers, presentation and delivery of digital news are important

Which digital features matter most to audiences? Do they want to drill down into links? Do they want to comment? Is it load times? Or visuals and interactives?

While these specific factors may not be typical elements of trust, they affect whether people rely on a news source. And in the same way that typos in a print article might make consumers question whether a source is getting the bigger facts right, in the 21st century consumers may think if a source can’t get its app to work right, it may be incompetent more generally.

Three specific factors in online news matter most, people say: A majority of digital news consumers report it is very important to them that ads not interfere with the news (63 percent); that the site or app loads fast (63 percent); that the content works well on their mobile phones (60 percent).

Numerous comments from the focus groups reinforced the importance of load times, mobile compatibility, and ad presentation in why people use and trust an online source.

“If it takes me two minutes to get to the actual article after clicking on the link where [another] one can take me two seconds, you’ve already lost me,” said Robert, a younger, hard news respondent. “And that’s one click that is not going to come back, because of poor design.”

“I also feel that a well put‑together page means it is running from a well put‑together media company,” said Jason, an older, hard news consumer. “If I were to click a link and the page appears all wonky, I would feel that the stories behind it could be flaky, as well as the reporting behind it. I do kind of judge a book by its cover in this category.”

People talked in particular about the importance of these qualities on their mobile phones, where traffic for news has shifted rapidly. Several consumers told us they have turned away from a news source because the site was hard to use or read on their phones.

“If a news source or a website doesn’t have a mobile version, I don’t know why but I just feel like I don’t even want to read it,” said Tanushree, a younger, hard news respondent. “It makes me feel like if you don’t have a mobile version, you’re not keeping up with the times. It just makes me not want to go to the website. It makes me question it.”

And both the survey and the qualitative research findings make it clear that it is important whether or not ads display in a way that interrupts what they are doing. The interviews showed that most news consumers know advertising is part of the business model and often enables the free access they expect. However, when people see advertising, they say they want it to be of a similar tone and topic to the news content and mesh visually with the page. In contrast, irrelevant, off‑tone, or jarring ads can really bother people. Even worse were ads that monopolized the screen.

“If I see more ads than the article there is a problem,” said Robert, a younger, hard news consumer. “If I cannot read an article because an ad is blocking it and I cannot close the ad, there is a problem.”

Robert and several of the other interview participants said ads that interfere with the news have led them to stop using some sources altogether. “With the ads that start playing [automatically], I find that very annoying especially if I’m at work and I forgot to hit mute on my speakers” he said. “That makes me a lot less likely to go to a website.”

These responses were revealing and cautionary. Some advertisers increasingly want their ads on mobile devices to be hard to miss. The message here is that ads that annoy consumers will backfire on publishers — and probably on advertisers.

Extremely/very important Somewhat important Not very/not important at all Don't know/refuse
The ads do not interfere with getting news and information 63% 18% 12% 7%
The site or app loads fast 63% 21% 8% 8%
It works well on my mobile phone 60% 17% 16% 7%
It uses visuals such as photos, videos, lists, or charts 51% 28% 13% 9%
The news and information include hyperlinks to get more information 46% 32% 15% 8%
It allows people to comment on news and information 30% 27% 37% 6%

Data Source: Question: Thinking about when you get news from [NAMED SOURCE] on [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED] in a digital format, how important is each of the following for you?

Media Insight Project

The survey research shows how well a news source makes use of visuals, photos, videos, lists, and charts also is important. In all, 51 percent of consumers cite that as very important. Similarly, just under half of consumers (46 percent) report that it is very important whether a publisher uses hyperlinks in their stories so that consumers can drill down on their own into a subject.

Only 1 in 3 Americans rank it as very important that digital sources allow people to comment on news.

In the focus groups as well, participants found value in these features, but spoke less passionately about them compared to issues of ads and mobile compatibility.

Visuals, data, and charts help them better understand news and information, people said, but they were also discerning about them. Charts or figures that are too narrowly focused or lack context, people told us, could make them more skeptical of the information.

“Videos, graphs, charts, those visual aids can help build trust because we all have learning styles,” said Drew, a younger, hard news consumer. “It will definitely catch my attention and tells me they are taking the time to consider different perspectives.”

Hyperlinks can generate trust, people told us, even if people do not click on them. This factor is especially important for younger digital news consumers.

“I may not read it, but it’s useful to have the posts that link there,” said Kimberly, a lifestyle news consumer. “I may not have time to actually go study the study, but I’ll trust that a little bit more than just saying ‘studies show.'”

Visuals and mobile capabilities matter more for some topics

The digital elements that matter to Americans vary somewhat depending on the kind of news.

Visuals matter more, for instance, when it comes to crime and public safety news. Fully 72 percent of people who follow crime news closely using digital sources say using visuals such as photos, lists, or charts is very or extremely important, compared to 38 percent who say that about local news from online sources. Visuals also matter significantly more for traffic and weather.

Percent
Crime and public safety 72%
Weather or traffic 68%
Lifestyle 56%
Domestic issues 52%
Sports 47%
National politics 47%
Foreign or international news 43%
Local news 38%

Data Source: Question: Thinking about when you get news from [NAMED SOURCE] on [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED] in a digital format, how important is each of the following for you? It uses visuals such as photos, videos, lists, or charts.

Media Insight Project

Whether or not content presents well on mobile also matters more for traffic and weather than it does for national politics (55 percent) and foreign or international news (40 percent).

Percent
Crime and public safety 78%
Weather or traffic 72%
Lifestyle 70%
Sports 63%
Domestic issues 60%
Local news 56%
National politics 55%
Foreign or international news 40%

Data Source: Question: Thinking about when you get news from [NAMED SOURCE] on [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED] in a digital format, how important is each of the following for you? It works well on my mobile phone.

Media Insight Project

By the same token, load times register as particularly important for crime and public safety news (78 percent); significantly higher than it does for local news (57 percent) and foreign or international news (57 percent).

Percent
Crime and public safety 78%
Weather or traffic 72%
Sports 72%
Lifestyle 69%
Domestic issues 63%
National politics 63%
Local news 57%
Foreign or international news 57%

Data Source: Question: Thinking about when you get news from [NAMED SOURCE] on [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED] in a digital format, how important is each of the following for you? The site or app loads fast.

Media Insight Project

Interestingly, the ability to comment on the news registers higher for crime news than other topics. Fully 50 percent of avid followers of crime and public safety news rate the presence of and ability to post comments as very important in their choice of news source compared with just 22 percent of people talking about sports and 29 percent of people talking about lifestyle news.

Percent
Crime and public safety 50%
Weather or traffic 36%
Domestic issues 35%
Lifestyle 29%
National politics 28%
Foreign or international news 23%
Local news 23%
Sports 22%

Data Source: Question: Thinking about when you get news from [NAMED SOURCE] on [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED] in a digital format, how important is each of the following for you? It allows people to comment on news and information.

Media Insight Project

Half of Americans get news on social media, but most have high degree of skepticism

What drives trust on social media? These networks present a variety of issues. People are no longer coming to a news brand when they are on Facebook or Twitter. Content from many sources is mixed, and news is only one kind of content a user may encounter in a given visit.

As we’ve noted in earlier Media Insight Project research, this means people in social media are no longer consuming news in “news sessions.” News instead is just one form of content that is part of a larger social flow, and it is being encountered as part of connecting with people more generally.1 The news has also been “atomized” in social media, meaning that people are encountering one story from a news source mixed in with content from many other sources, quite unlike watching a newscast or reading a magazine or newspaper, where all the content comes from the same source.

What causes people to decide to click on a given news story in that environment while skipping over another? This is a new dimension of trust.

“I follow the local news stations on social media platforms and I enjoy it because I get the news as it is happening,” said Tabitha, a lifestyle news consumer. “With apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, the news is literally at my fingertips.”

About half of Americans (51 percent) report they get news from social media. When those receiving news on social media are asked to name the two networks they use most frequently for such information, Facebook is by far the most popular network (87 percent of all adults who get news on social media say they get information there) followed by YouTube (21 percent), Twitter (18 percent), and Instagram (13 percent).

Fewer than 5 percent of those who get news on social media mention LinkedIn, Reddit, or Snapchat as one of the their top two platforms, while less than 1 percent select Vine or Yik Yak.

Percent
Facebook 87%
YouTube 21%
Twitter 18%
Instagram 13%
LinkedIn 5%
Reddit 3%
Snapchat 3%

Data Source: Question: Which of the following do you use most frequently to get news and information? Please select up to two.

Media Insight Project

However, while social media may be a common way for people to discover news today, those who use it are skeptical of the news and information they find there.

Fewer than 1 in 4 of these social media news consumers, for instance, say they trust news and information from that source a great deal or a lot. That number ranges from as low as 12 percent on Facebook to 23 percent on LinkedIn. The largest share of people, on all social networks, say they trust the information only somewhat.

Trust news a great deal/a lot Trust news somewhat Trust news a little/not at all
LinkedIn 23% 30% 19%
Reddit 22% 44% 20%
Twitter 18% 43% 17%
Instragram 17% 38% 22%
YouTube 16% 49% 17%
Snapchat 14% 36% 33%
Facebook 12% 48% 20%

Data Source: Question: In general, how much do you trust the news and information you see on [SELECTED SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM]? Question asked of people who use each platform to get news.

Media Insight Project

People who get news from social media use cues to decide what news to trust

How much these social media news consumers trust a given item depends on several factors. The most important of these, people say, is the original news organization that produced the content.

Nearly 7 in 10 of those who get news on Facebook (66 percent) cite this as a critical factor in their decision to trust the content. Six in 10 (62 percent) say so about Twitter and somewhat fewer (57 percent) about YouTube.

The reputation of the person who shared the material is a less frequently cited factor, though still sizable. That factor is very important to just under half of users of most networks.

On the other hand, the popularity of the post itself, how many people shared, liked or commented on it, does little to affect trust. About 1 in 5 people say the number of others who have liked, shared, retweeted, or commented on a piece of news or information impacts their trust in the information.

Trust in original source Trust in person posted/tweeted A lot of people comment, like, or share
Facebook 66% 48% 16%
Twitter 62% 49% 21%
YouTube 57% 44% 19%

Data Source: Questions: How much do the following factors affect your trust in piece of news and information you see on [SELECTED SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM]?

Media Insight Project

We heard the same thing in our qualitative research. Participants in the focus groups said source is key on social media — and by source, they meant the original source creating the story and the person who shared it. Several people said if they respect the person who is posting news or perceive that person as knowledgeable on the subject, it can lend credibility to the story.

“I look who shared it. If I have a friend that’s a creep I might not believe what they post,” said Sonya, an older, hard news consumer. “If a friend is in a certain field, then I might believe what they post.”

And here too we heard people discount the idea that the number of shares or likes was a metric of credibility.

“When I see the number of likes or shares or the number of people reading an article, I just think it’s a popularity contest,” said Michael, an older, hard news consumer.

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