Study: Reframing Article Headlines, Messages Around Reader Values Can Help Build Trust

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Most journalists see their profession as one that can do good in the world. They profess that their role is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” while movies like “Spotlight” and “All the President’s Men” portray them tirelessly pushing to bring the truth to light. But these portraits don’t fully reflect today’s reality: There is an increasing distrust in “mainstream” journalism in the U.S. and abroad. The Media Insight Project recently investigated Americans’ perceptions of the core values that underlie journalistic inquiry and found that they are not “universally embraced,” which may be one of the reasons that distrust in the media seems intractable.

In the study, the Media Insight Project – a collaboration between the American Press Institute (a News Media Alliance foundation affiliate) and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research – tested the public’s attitudes on five core values of journalism: care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and purity versus degradation.

The findings are stark – only “11 percent unreservedly embrace all five of the journalism principles tested and these people tend to be politically liberal.” Of the five values, a majority of respondents (67 percent) support only one: “the idea that more facts get us closer to the truth.” A mere 29 percent agree that “a good way to make society better is to spotlight its problems.”

The research was based on Moral Foundations Theory, which examines how different people, regardless of their demographic qualities or political views, respond to different moral values. Researchers grouped study participants into four clusters, and only one of those had a partisan bent. The other three clusters were mixed, with the key determining factor being how much they agreed with different journalism tenets.

Despite these somewhat discouraging findings, The Media Insight Project pointed out that journalists can use the findings from the study to frame their work to engender more trust among readers. When researchers revised the headlines and lead sentences of stories to more heavily focus on certain moral values, readers from all four clusters liked and trusted the revised stories more than the originals.

While thinking about audiences in this new way may be difficult for journalism organizations, it may benefit them beyond increasing trust. The researchers looked at how to ask respondents for financial support for journalism organizations, and as with the core values, moral leanings also played a large part. Messages highlighting journalists’ watchdog role may resonate strongly with journalists themselves, but they may not be the most successful in terms of reaching the broadest group of supporters. Unsurprisingly, messages that highlight specific moral values resonate best with groups of people who prioritize those values – people who prioritize care responded best to messages about journalism caring for the vulnerable, for example. Organizations should test their subscription appeals similarly to the framing experiment to determine how best to grow their subscriber base.

Generating trust among readers in – and support in the community for – journalism is one of the most important tasks the news industry faces. However, using this research, news organizations can effectively begin to plan for the future. The first step is to commit to understanding readers better (e.g., What do they believe? What moral values do they hold?) Once journalists have that information, they can use it to shape how they do their work. Whether organizations want to grow their subscription business, recommit to their audience post-pandemic, or reach the next generation of readers, understanding their audiences’ moral leanings and how to frame them will give good journalism a solid footing for the new age.


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