10 Newsroom Lessons We Learned in 2019

1. Build trust by using an “Explain Your Process” box.

Audience trust is key to a newsroom’s success. But in this era of “fake news” and fading confidence in the media, it can be difficult to earn. We worked with Trusting News to show that adding a box that helps readers understand the journalistic process can help to build trust.

The box should lay out how and why a news organization chose to do a story and can include information like where reporters gathered information and how the reporter took steps to be fair. Reporters should already have the information from the news-gathering process, making it a fast and easy addition to a story.

2. Address common reader concerns in your reporting.

What questions do readers have about your stories? Taking their answers into account during the reporting process can better connect readers to your content and build trust. We wanted to help newsrooms get ahead of the most common concerns, so we went straight to the source – the readers. Here are a few key improvements we recommend, based on their answers:

  • Provide more context in stories, give background information, and link to previous coverage.
  • Explain key terminology and government or police processes.
  • Include a wide range of relevant sources and thoroughly explain source choices.
  • Provide a statement of independence, stating the lack of a relationship with sources.
  • Place key information up-front or in a box within the story.

3. Rethink your story label placement.

Many newsrooms use labels like news, analysis, opinion, or sponsored content to help people understand what type of story they’re reading. But do readers actually notice these labels? Our research says no.

We looked at two kinds of labels, a label at the top of the story, above the headline that is used by many news organizations and a new type of label placed under the headline that explained the type of story. The results showed that labels alone don’t affect trust – but this doesn’t mean you should stop using them. Make sure the label is placed in a highly-visible location and try using the in-story label that explains the terminology, which worked better for recall.

4. Combine story labels with other strategies.

Story labels might not work alone, but our past research shows that combining labels with these additional strategies can increase trust:

  • Providing journalist bios
  • Including footnotes for citations
  • Writing a description of how and why the story was reported
  • Noting involvement in the Trust Project, an international consortium of news organizations

5. Use straightforward photos for articles on Facebook.

Many newsrooms serve audiences with diverse political viewpoints. To see how conservatives and liberals react to certain articles, we teamed up with ProPublica.

We found that articles using straightforward photos, instead of illustrations with symbolic meaning, got more clicks from conservatives and liberals. Headlines that were re-written to appeal to partisan moral values, however, decreased clicks among both groups.

6. Stay away from click-bait content — it might not actually get you clicks.

Covering the latest outrageous political story seems like an obvious choice. The digital world is competitive and, bottom line, you need the clicks. But this type of story might not only fail to boost engagement, it could also hurt the credibility of your news organization.

In a previous study, we found that questions in political news headlines make audiences less likely to engage. Now, we examined the effects of “outrage news,” which focuses on outrageous behavior by political leaders. Our suggestion? Don’t be tempted by potential clicks. You likely won’t get the engagement you were hoping for and you could end up feeding the narrative of “fake news.”

7. Connect with your audience using the core components of solutions journalism.

You’ve probably heard the complaint: news is just too negative.  You can’t stop covering the bad stories, but you can give readers some of what they want – positive news coverage that focuses on the solution, not just the problem.

We looked at five core components of solutions journalism to determine which components had the greatest effect on reader attitudes:

  1. Problem: The causes and symptoms of the issue,
  2. Solution: The replicable ideas tied to solving the problem,
  3. Implementation: The how-to details of putting the solution into action,
  4. Results: The progress, data-based or anecdotal, that has been made in working toward a solution, and
  5. Insights: The teachable, big-picture lessons that can be learned beyond one particular solution or situation.

We found that articles containing all five components:

  • Improved readers’ perceptions of article quality
  • Increased readers’ intentions to engage
  • Increased readers’ interest in and knowledge about the issue
  • Boosted readers’ positivity

This suggests that it is worth the effort to fully explore all five components of solutions journalism, and the first two in particular, in depth. Doing so can improve how readers view the quality of the coverage and make them want to get involved in finding a solution to the problem.

8. Keep an eye on your comment sections.

Profanity, name-calling, and all-caps yelling can dominate the discussion in a comment section. But what do these comments mean for the news brand as a whole? We found that:

  • Uncivil comments taint the perception of a news brand.
  • Setting a positive tone with the first few comments may not be enough.
  • News organizations would benefit from improving comment streams.

Some organizations have tried to deter incivility by encouraging journalists to highlight comments that are civil and thoughtful or to post the first comment to set a positive tone for a comment thread. While these are great practices, they may not be enough. News organizations should focus on the whole comment stream or at least the parts that are visible when people visit the site. Our previous work found that having journalists get involved in comment sections can be one effective strategy.

9. Take care of your comment moderators.

Comments sections can be brutal. When faced with an onslaught of negative messages, your first thought is most likely about how the problem will affect readers (The answer? It’s not good for your brand). But you probably haven’t considered what it means for the moderators. You should.

Our study found that moderators who viewed only uncivil comments saw the news organization as less trustworthy and moderators who tackled only uncivil comments were more emotionally exhausted and less satisfied with their task.

So what can you do? Keep a close eye on your comments section. Take steps to keep the conversation civil, ask journalists to encourage higher-quality conversations, and give moderators other work to break up the task.

10. Consider journalism-based theater as a powerful and unique way to engage your audience.

In partnership with The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and StoryWorks, we examined how audiences respond to journalism-based theater. We found that it can:

  • Lead audiences to perceive certain media roles (like acting as a government watchdog) as more important
  • Help audiences see news organizations more favorably
  • Increase people’s knowledge and affect their beliefs and intentions

The results show that through theater, news organizations can connect, empower, and inform audiences through a unique and creative medium.