Building trust and credibility with an online audience

byDamon Kiesow
Mar 16 in Digital journalism

Doreen Marchionni spent the last four years studying how journalists can boost their credibility and engagement with digital audiences. She found the simple secret: Interact online and be human.

However, she says, it takes more than simply having a Twitter account and posting story links. “When your audience is able to participate and influence the outcome of a story,” that is conversational journalism, she told me by phone last week.

Marchionni, who studied the topic for her Ph.D. at the University of Missouri in 2009, now teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, and is an editor at The Seattle Times. She discusses the findings of her doctoral dissertation Tuesday at SXSW.

Her presentation will focus on practical tips newsrooms can take to increase interaction, trust and audience for news websites. Below are her suggestions for journalists.

Use the tools of the Internet to commit journalism.

Reporters need to be on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Taking simple steps such as crowdsourcing story ideas or encouraging feedback increases a reporter’s credibility with a digital audience, Marchionni found in her research.

And, having a Twitter account that mixes appropriate personal messages along with work-related tweets can let the audience see the “person behind the news,” which also builds trust.

“This is a very uncomfortable idea for mainstream journalists,” she said. But it is a critical element in reader engagement online.

Provide online bio pages with photos.

Many news websites have inadequate “contact us” pages, and Marchionni suggests that staff directories should be improved to include both photos and short biographical sketches.

Providing photos, as columnists often do, allows readers to measure their “perceived similarity” to a journalist. This analysis includes both intellectual viewpoints on a topic as well as demographic factors. Audiences subconsciously use this information to judge the news they receive.

Marchionni said that in her studies, this factor was the most influential in determining the trust and credibility readers attributed to a news source.

Readers, she said, “perceive news in which they can sense the person behind the news as highly credible and highly expert.”

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Photo by opacity, Creative Commons Attribution License