Journalists' autopilot settings on what to trust

Plus, evidence for a genetic inclination toward news, journalists' role in normalizing the term "fake news," and how Trump strategically used Twitter to generate coverage

Welcome to another edition of RQ1! For those who are new, we are Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis—two former journalists turned academics, now teaching and researching at Washington and Lee University (Mark) and the University of Oregon (Seth).

In trying to keep pace with all the new research about news and journalism, we hope to give you each month a quick breakdown of a notable piece of new research, and also to highlight other interesting work you might want to check out. We can’t cover it all, of course, so consider this a sampling of some of the most interesting findings in news research.

If you have ideas or suggestions, please shoot us a reply—we’d love to hear from you. And if you enjoy this, please share the newsletter with your colleagues so they can sign up. If someone has shared this email with you, then you can subscribe here:

Here’s what we found in this month’s news research:

Journalists’ shortcuts to determine what to trust

Who and what journalists trust determines a substantial amount of what makes it through the journalistic filter to audience — what leads they pursue, who they talk to, how they frame a story. But given the importance of trust, we know relatively little about why journalists trust certain sources or information.

Media sociologists have overwhelmingly determined that journalists rely heavily on official sources. But we know less about how journalists actually evaluate the information they get, how they determine whether to verify something or take a news tip seriously.

Now, Israeli scholars Aviv Barnoy and Zvi Reich have given us the closest look yet at how journalists determine what information to trust when reporting a story in their new article, “Trusting Others: A Pareto Distribution of Source and Message Credibility Among News Reporters,” in the journal Communication Research.

Barnoy and Reich were interested in two dimensions of trust: Source credibility (whether the journalist considers the source credible) and message credibility (whether the journalist considers the information itself credible). Do journalists actually distinguish between these two things, they wondered, or do they just trust information by default that comes from a source they find trustworthy? In addition, they wanted to know what kinds of factors most influence journalists’ trust. To determine this, they asked Israeli journalists in interviews to go through all the sources in a sample of their recent news stories and explain why they trusted (or didn’t trust) each one. They ended up with quantitative data on 1,307 sources and additional qualitative data on 50 full news stories.

The results aren’t particularly flattering to journalists. In the large majority of cases, source credibility takes over: If a source seems credible, they essentially trust whatever that source’s message is. As Barnoy and Reich describe it, this is journalists’ “autopilot” mode that functions more than two-thirds of the time. In a minority of cases, they switch into “manual mode” and actually try to evaluate or verify the message’s credibility — often when an official source is out of their depth or sensible information comes from a dubious source.

And what factors lead journalists to determine whether a source (or message) is credible? The number-one component was — surprise, surprise — the source’s “officialness” or organizational role. The top secondary factors were a source’s potentially biasing self-interest and whether the information conflicted with messages from other sources.

So Barnoy and Reich found that if journalists have sources they trust, they’ll generally trust most anything the source tells them. And the most reliable way to become one of those trusted sources is to have an authoritative official role. It’s a fairly damning finding for journalists, though Barnoy and Reich point out that it’s essentially the same way that the rest of us (and even experts) decide to trust information, too.

Barnoy and Reich argue that journalists’ default posture should be much more skeptical than this, though it’s clear that journalists are forced into these cognitive shortcuts because they simply don’t have the time to evaluate and verify things more thoroughly before trusting them. Still, this reflexive source-based trust rooted in “official” authority leaves them vulnerable to being misled and leaves out valuable alternative or marginalized voices as well.

Research roundup

Here are some other studies that caught our eye this past month:

Exploring genetic contributions to news use motives and frequency of news consumption: A study of identical and fraternal twins
Chance York & Paul Haridakis
Mass Communication and Society

Researchers have long explored the social and psychological characteristics that motivate people to get news—but could there be more fundamental drivers, even biological ones at the level of one’s genes? From data on 334 identical and fraternal twins, York and Haridakis find that latent genetic traits explain at least some of the differences in the motives for news use and the frequency that one uses news. “Genetic traits,” they write, “were particularly influential in explaining frequency of using sources commonly characterized as ideological, such as Fox News and CNN.” The paper is quick to note that there is no “news gene.” But it does suggest that scholars need to take a closer look at genetic propensities that, in the context of certain social and environmental factors, might lead people to be more or less interested in news. For example, a large body of research has shown that children learn to follow news by watching their parents—and there is recent evidence that avoiding the news might follow related patterns of socialization. This raises the question: Is news use, to some extent, a function of nature as well as nurture?

Public beliefs about falsehoods in news
Karolina Koc-Michalska, Bruce Bimber, Daniel Gomez, Matthew Jenkins, & Shelley Boulianne
The International Journal of Press/Politics

The amount of research about “fake news” probably far outweighs the actual problem that misinformation plays in the world (as research, naturally, has shown). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t new things to learn about the complicated ways in which people encounter and make sense of falsehoods, including how people attempt to verify information that seems suspect to them. Using a comparative election survey in the U.S., the U.K., and France, the authors find three key predictors of whether people believe they have been exposed to false news: talking about news with others, using social media for political purposes, and being exposed to “counter-attitudinal information” (or, a diverse set of political ideas). The nexus among these three factors, the researchers argue, suggest a pattern that likely holds in other countries. However, drawing on differences apparent among 2016 Trump supporters in the U.S., they also point to the role that “a single political figure can in a period of just months shape public beliefs about the validity of news.”

From novelty to normalization? How journalists use the term “fake news” in their reporting
Jana Laura Egelhofer, Loes Aaldering, Jakob-Moritz Eberl, Sebastian Galyga, & Sophie Lecheler
Journalism Studies

Speaking of “fake news,” how do journalists themselves use the term? Noting that it’s a highly controversial but “arguably effective buzzword in news coverage,” the authors conducted a quantitative content analysis of all news stories that included a reference to “fake news” in major Austrian daily newspapers between 2015 and 2018. They found what might be an expected shift over time, as “fake news” moves from primarily describing disinformation online to a broader reflection of attacks against the legacy press. What’s particularly notable, however, is that journalists increasingly used the term in contexts that were totally unrelated to either disinformation or media attacks. By using the term this way, the authors conclude, journalists not only give more attention to “fake news” than the term may deserve, but they also trivialize and normalize it as a routine way of describing anything false—which, of course, could further undermine how people come to trust and make associations about news.

Evolving data teams: Tensions between organisational structure and professional subculture
Florian Stalph
Big Data & Society

On the one hand, data journalism is old news—it has been around for decades in various forms and, if it were once on the margins of newsrooms, it’s now much more fully institutionalized and accepted. And yet, on the other hand, data journalism still remains unevenly consolidated in many news outlets: There’s no consensus on the right organizational structure for it, or how, over time, it should best grow, expand, and become more formalized within newsroom work structures. Against that uncertainty, this paper offers a window onto tensions that emerge as newsrooms attempt to structurally integrate data journalism teams, which can possess their own professional subculture built around certain ideas about norms, values, and beliefs. Through interviews with the data teams at The Guardian, Spiegel Online, and Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Stalph shows how some organizational structures accommodated data teams, leading to their growth, formalization, and complexity—while in other cases incompatibilities arose around, in part because of disagreements among individuals about the role and meaning of data journalism. Stalph emphasizes that the impact of individuals and how their definitions and cultural expectations align: “It stands out across all three cases that how data journalism is being practiced, is closely tied to the agency and mindset of individual journalists.”

Postcolonial reflexivity in the news industry: The case of foreign correspondents in Kenya and South Africa
Toussaint Nothias
Journal of Communication

Over the past several decades, a wide array of scholars—anthropologists, historians, political scientists, sociologists, and more—have criticized the stereotypes that Western news media tend to use in misrepresenting and marginalizing Africa. Such coverage has developed a “narrative of conflict, unrest, and violence [that] reproduces dehumanizing and racist stereotypes and is in direct continuity with colonial discourses and racialized representations of Africa as the ‘dark continent.’” So, what do foreign correspondents think about this? How do those on the front lines of producing Africa’s media image feel about this criticism? Nothias interviewed 35 foreign correspondents and found that, contrary to previous studies where journalists deny being complicit in such problems, they agree with the core elements of the critique. The journalists display what Nothias calls a “postcolonial reflexivity”—that is, a capacity to recognize the harmful impact of the news industry in “representational Othering.” The article examines the sources and impact of this critical self-reflection among journalists and what it could mean for improved media portrayals, while also acknowledging the work that remains to be done.

The digital spotlight: Applying a connective action framework of political protest to global watchdog reporting
Andrea Carson
The International Journal of Press/Politics

Globalization has amped up opportunities for crime, corruption, and other wrongdoing to transcend traditional nation-state borders. Accordingly, investigative journalists—normally used to working on problems in their local geographic area—have increasingly been collaborating with their colleagues around the globe in large-scale, network-based investigations, such as those involving massive data leaks in the case of the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers. But to date, there hasn’t been a scholarly approach for advancing a theoretical understanding of global watchdog reporting—a way to map the different varieties of multi-newsroom investigations. Carson’s analysis applies the “logic of connective action,” developed previously to study large-scale political protest movements, to draw out key differences between the collaborative investigative reporting efforts of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency (NSA) leaks.

Trump, Twitter, and news media responsiveness: A media systems approach
Chris Wells, Dhavan Shah, Josephine Lukito, Ayellet Pelled, Jon CW Pevehouse, JungHwan Yang
New Media & Society

This paper explores how different dimensions of the U.S. media system—from far-left to far-right sources to plenty in between—allocated their attention among the four leading candidates (Trump, Cruz, Clinton, Sanders) during the primaries for the 2016 election. This is not about how the candidates were covered, but rather their ability to muster media attention. For all the talk about media fragmentation these days, the authors found a surprising level of uniformity in how organizations across the political spectrum allocated attention to the candidates. Of note, they also found a likewise surprising consistency in the factors that drove Trump’s attention advantage, with the volume of his retweets playing a particularly outsized role—even though other candidates saw no comparable boost in coverage from retweets. What’s more, “Trump tweeted more at times when he had recently garnered less of a relative advantage in news attention, suggesting he strategically used Twitter to trigger coverage.” Overall, these findings reinforce problems that others have found in the balance and proportion in 2016 election coverage, and they point to the growing role of audience metrics in influencing news judgment and the attention economy as a whole.

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