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When journalists get their info from social media, audiences find the reports less credible

Press conferences, interviews, telephone calls — these are the traditional ways in which journalists source their stories. Today, however, many more options are available. From Facebook to Twitter to Google, journalists have many new ways to track down information to inform their reporting.

But what do audiences think about these techniques? Do readers think social media sourcing is as credible as shoe-leather reporting?

To find out, Sanne Kruikemeier and Sophie Lecheler, faculty members at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) at the University van Amsterdam, conducted a study. They gave 422 participants vignettes about how a journalist went about sourcing a story. Participants read two scenarios about how a journalist went about finding information for an article about data privacy. The stories were identical except for the source that the journalist used to seek more insight.

Do readers think social media sourcing is as credible as shoe-leather reporting?

For some participants, the source was online, such as Google or Facebook. For other participants, the source was more traditional, such as an interview or phone conversation. In total, Kruikemeier and Lecheler evaluated 11 different possible sources.

The vignette described a journalist assigned to work on a particular story. The journalist then writes an outline of the article, but “decides to seek out further information through [Facebook / Twitter / Wikipedia / news websites / Google / interviews / a stake-out in front of parliament / a press conference about this subject / news from press agencies / an email with the parties involved / phone calls].”

After reading each vignette, the study participants were asked to rate how credible they found the data collection method used by the journalist.

The study, forthcoming in the academic journal Journalism Studies, showed that audiences rated interviews and stake-outs (where the journalist waited in front of a government building for an interview) as considerably more credible than social media sources. Not all online sources fared poorly in terms of credibility assessments, however. Email, for instance, received a credibility rating that was not statistically distinguishable from interviews.

Source Average credibility perception
Twitter 2.56
Facebook 2.55
Wikipedia 2.99
Google 3.02
Website 3.43
Press agency 3.81
Telephone 4.16
Email 4.25
Press conference 4.33
Stake-out 4.70
Interview 4.70

Data Source: Average of seven characteristics: reliable, professional, correct, as it should be, objective, accurate, fair. 1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree

American Press Institute

The research team added another important element to their study. At random, they told half of the people that the journalist “verified and checked the information” that had been obtained from each source. When this verification statement was appended to the vignette describing the journalist’s work, people rated the information gathering strategy as more credible than when it was not attached.

The verification information read: “To make sure everything is correct, the journalist verifies and checks the information he has gotten from [Facebook / Twitter / Wikipedia / the news websites / Google / the interviews / the stake-out / the press conference / the press agency / the emails / the phone calls], with other information.”

Overall, the verification statement increased perceptions of credibility. Without the statement, respondents rated the journalist’s practices a 3.51. With the statement, average ratings increased to 3.85.

Even when including verification information, people still found some sources more reliable than others.

The authors wondered whether the verification information would eliminate the credibility differences across the sources. Perhaps verified information obtained via social media would be seen as equally credible as interviews that had been checked.

This was not the case, however. Even when including verification information, people still found some sources more reliable than others. For instance, Twitter credibility assessments were low regardless of whether the verification information was included. In contrast to using Twitter, reporting based on phone calls, emails, or interviews was rated even more highly when the verification information was included than when it was not.

Like any study, this one has limits. As the authors are careful to note, the study looked only at a single vignette about data privacy; perhaps other stories would yield different evaluations of the sourcing strategy used. Further, the sample was members of the Dutch population. Although there are commonalities between the Dutch and U.S. media systems — both are well-rated in terms of press freedom, for instance — researchers in the United States would have to see whether the results replicate here.

Considered alongside ideas about how journalists can increase the transparency of their reporting (see here and here), this study offers a cautionary tale for journalists. Audiences may not see using social and online media sources as credible.

As these techniques are increasingly being used, finding ways to educate audiences about their value and the careful steps taken within newsrooms to verify online sources seems paramount.

Next steps

Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate to analyze the following:

  • Studies could examine what sorts of disclosures build credibility. In this study, a simple statement was included about verifying the information. One could envision more disclosive statements that give audiences more insight into the process that might help to build credibility. Future research could assess this possibility.
  • The generalizability of this study could be evaluated, looking at both different cultures and other story subjects to see whether the findings persist.
  • Newsrooms interested in disclosing their sources could evaluate how audiences react in terms of standard metrics like time on site and return visits.

Citation

Sanne Kruikemeier and Sophie Lecheler. (2016). News consumer perceptions of new journalistic sourcing techniques. Journalism Studies. doi: 10.1080/1461670X.2016.1192956

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