“Voice” Leads to More Credibility and Political Efficacy

Newsosaur blogger Alan Mutter writes what I think is a thought-provoking and interesting post in which he argues that given the current economic crisis facing most news outlets today, they might consider “whether a more outspoken, less diffident, more opinionated and less dreary press might be welcomed by journalists and readers alike.”

I don’t have time for a more complete post now in the midst of grading season, but I just wanted to note that the research indicates that he is exactly right.

As early as 1989, scholars Newhagan and Nass were finding that television news anchors were more trusted than their newspaper counterparts, in large part because people just felt like they really knew them.  This was before the cable shout-fests began, but simply being able to show a hint of personality and to be a “real person” on air led to higher credibility.

A recent study by my former Mizzou colleagues Jeremy Littau, Liz Gardner, and Esther Thorson, presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Boston last August, found that news with more opinion, voice, and analysis could be key in attracting younger readers. (Jeremy has his own blog, and I’m sure he can talk better about his work than I can, so check it out :))

They also tested the impact of voice on what is known in the academy as “political efficacy,” or the belief that you are able to act upon your knowledge.

What they found is that voice increases efficacy, in part because, unlike a dry, authoritative, institutional voice, it better engages your brain. It gets you thinking,  actively processing the information, which in turn makes it more likely that you will not only remember this information, but feel empowered to act on it, too.

There’s more research on voice, which I will write about later; one of my students did her final paper for my class on the subject.

I’m lucky enough to have many journalism friends on Facebook, and sometimes I feel like their hilarious, irreverent voices don’t make it into their more dry, institutional copy. I think it’s a missed opportunity.

Voice doesn’t HAVE TO mean less facts or more ill-informed ranting a la Fox News or MSNBC. It’s what our best columnists have always done – there’s still hard-hitting reporting, but the person behind the story isn’t completely hidden. If anything, the biases they are trying (often to little avail) to hide are instead transparently represented to the audience and become part and parcel of their expertise rather than a liability.

16 Comments

Filed under Research on Newsroom Change

16 responses to ““Voice” Leads to More Credibility and Political Efficacy

  1. Thanks for pointing this out – any link to the research? It’s often argued that the ‘objective’ presentation of news often strips it of meaning and engagement.
    As a curious exercise, I recently watched the unedited video of the Iranian demonstrator dying in the street, then the same video presented as part of a CNN broadcast. The latter was much less affecting because of the generic conventions of voiceover and drama that stripped it of the connection and rawness that it had in its original form.

  2. Useful and thought-provoking, Carrie. I’m all for voice, especially in social and online media, but I do think there’s a difference between voice and opinion. There’s no question that users/viewers respond to both voice and point of view–perhaps in in part because it’s more entertaining than so-called straight news. See: http://www.newslab.org/2009/10/30/why-viewers-like-opinionated-news/

  3. changingnewsroom

    Interesting, Deborah, thanks for the link! And by the way, miss seeing you around the PEJ/CCJ offices back when🙂 You are right, voice and opinion are different, good point.

    Paul – ha, you know, thanks for pointing it out, because I just figured out that AEJMC papers ARE accessible to non-members (you may be a member, but the reason I didn’t link to it in the first place was because I didn’t think it would be accessible for everyone. Here it is:

    http://www.allacademic.com//meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/3/7/5/9/9/pages375992/p375992-1.php

  4. changingnewsroom

    Howard,

    Thanks for the links. I think you are exactly right on. As I discuss in this post, studies show that the “personal touch” has long led to trust – and while in the past pre-online world you maybe could get away without it and speak in your authoritative, expert voice, I think that Web 2.0 is driving us toward a model like the one you talk about or bust.

    The only thing I’m not quite sure about its the term personal journalism, although the more I think about it, it’s not bad…my initial reaction was just that it sounds a little bit too much like personalized news, or the DailyMe or whatever, which is a somewhat different idea.

    Some of the smartest people I know, including the late James Carey, a great journalism thinker and former professor at Columbia U., and my friend Dr. Doreen Marchionni, have talked about how journalism is becoming a conversation. Here’s a little guest post by Doreen.

    https://changingnewsroom.wordpress.com/2008/08/13/journalism-as-conversation/

  5. Amanda Spake

    The loss of voice from newspapers, and from much of nonfiction reporting in any form, is one of the key factors leading to what many of us see as a “dumbing down” of journalism. As you so clearly point out, it is voice in reporting that “better engages your brain. It gets you thinking, actively processing the information…” Without voice, a newspaper “story” is not much a story at all. It’s just a collection of statistics, quotes, and often conflicting facts, put together in a way that just as often confuses, as clarifies, an event or subject for it’s readers.
    As you also correctly point out, voice is NOT the same thing as opinion. And the ability to use voice in nonfiction writing should not be a license to do so with fewer facts or shoddy reporting. The ability to find and effectively use one’s voice is necessary for telling stories at all-–no matter what the medium. How can you tell a good story without a storyteller’s voice? The emphasis on new technology in newsrooms, has sometimes eclipsed the fact that journalists, at base, must be storytellers.
    In my view, voice was gradually eliminated from newspaper reporting, except in columns, when newspapers became obsessed with objectivity. There were, of course, exceptions to this – often the Washington Post Style section and much of theNew York Times offered pieces that were models for first rate reporting told in engaging voices. These were the articles that people talked about, and remembered, because they reached not only for an account of the facts, but the illimination of context and larger truths.
    But by in large, somewhere around the 1960’s, newspapers ceded voice to magazines. What followed, of course, was the heyday of magazine journalism, as dozens of excellent magazines – and magazine writers – came of age and flourished in this country.
    Sadly, magazines began to die off even before newspapers recognized their coming demise. And as print journalism has tried to compete, emulate, fight-off, “monetize,” or somehow find a liveable accommodation with the Internet, the length of stories that newspapers (or magazines) will publish has shrunk to something that can be read in, maybe, five minutes on a small screen. And the very first words and sentences that are cut, are the voice of the journalist.
    Deborah Potter’s comment that she thinks voice is best in social and online media is perplexing to me, since neither offer the length needed to do good nonfiction writing with voice.
    To my way of thinking, it’s not surprising that young people (like old people) prefer articles with voice, nor that they find them entertaining and enlightening to read. I’m delighted that people like you, and the folks at the University of Missouri are quantifying this fact. And I only hope that publishers, like journalism professors, will take note, and act on this information.
    There is very little left in newspapers or magazines that is entertaining, or even readable. Stylish, intelligent writing is rare. Only two good things about today’s newspaper articles come to mind: they are searchable electronically, and they fit better on a small screen. Both are cold comfort for those of us who still love high-quality nonfiction reporting and writing–with voice.

  6. changingnewsroom

    Amanda,

    Thank you for such an insightful, thoughtful comment.

    I agree wholeheartedly, although I would say that I think that voice can also appear and be a critical part of success in social and online media and isn’t limited to long-form journalism.

    Interestingly enough, when it comes to understanding some of the reasons why people are drawn to voice, we have to look at the work of (gasp) those who study advertising, public relations, and marketing. While those very words used to make me want to drive the porcelain bus, the truth is, they know a lot about how people perceive, remember, and respond to information. Now obviously the creative or journalistic process isn’t about scientifically feeding people information in a way that is programmed to have a predetermined result, but it does tell us something about how we can cut through the clutter and attract people’s increasingly diminished attention in a media world beset by crisis.

  7. changingnewsroom

    I should note here before I get carried away that there IS some counter-evidence, which I meant to mention earlier, but forgot given my rush back to grading – although I did tweet about this. One study, also by my former Mizzou colleagues Doreen Marchionni, Hans Meyer, and Esther Thorson, found in an experimental setting that readers were NOT more likely to think journalists who showed voice/personality/their own views as more credible than a more “traditionally objective” account. I will write more about this later.

    Our understanding of how voice operates vis a vis a more institutional/authoritative to establish credibility – especially on the Web – is still evolving. But in some of my own research on transparency – which is similar to although not synonymous with voice – I found a wealth of indications in both past and recent research showing the personality and a face behind the news contributes to credibility. This also jives with the growing body of research I’m just now learning about (thanks to my graduate students) out of the fields of advertising and public relations.

  8. It was great to see the research associated with this topic— a discussion we have often within our TV newsroom. It’s interesting, because with a lot of live reporters, you see a lot of strong personality because the speaking is, for the most part, off the cuff— it’s when we have time to really process information and think “too much” about whether we’re putting ourselves into the stories that we lose a little bit of that. Not that a story should ever be about the journalist, but I think that readers/listeners/viewers/visitors like to know that the journalist really was THERE when something happened or really talked DIRECTLY to people involved— and can connect better with a piece that has more relateable descriptions. Plus, in a world where your status as an INDIVIDUAL as a journalist is becoming more important, personality is essentially becoming a necessity to making you a necessity to a newsroom…you need to produce work that viewers/etc want to get directly from YOU. Some bloggers for news outlets are doing a great job of this already, but it would be nice if they’d breathe a little more of that life into every piece of work.
    (All in all, thanks for the post- enjoyed reading!)

  9. changingnewsroom

    Thanks, Erica…good points, I agree.

  10. Quite interesting and informative site!
    According to the research conducted by various institutions including the PEW, combination of text, video, images and audio make the websites perfect.
    This is also the benchmark for credibility and reliability of the websites.

  11. The “voice” that TV news reporters used years ago doesn’t translate well today. Often when I see TV news reporters attempt to “be human” by trying to be ironic, or funny, it often looks and sounds very awkward. I think we’re losing the middle ground between shouty TV news and having the news read to viewers by someone reading from a teleprompter.

  12. changingnewsroom

    Hi Ben,

    True, although I think that the underlying process at work there isn’t just about the cheesy lines and more that you see the person every day in your living room and feel like you’ve started to get to know them. It’s actually one area where I think local or network TV has done better than the cable TV folks. This is now something that newspaper reporters can also do, although as you say, I think it can certainly be done “wrong” or over the top. I think that there is a real hunger for authenticity and “being real” online will get you farther than being fake.

    • The only example I can really reference is what I saw in Metro Detroit TV news growing up. For years it was the same presenters, so you got to know them. Some of them are still around today. I was surprised to see some familiar faces when I was watching it last week from home. When you have the familiarity with the audience and the station, it becomes less forced. But when there’s high turn-over, you get less of an opportunity to establish a rapport with readers or the station’s way of doing things.

      I agree it’s something newspaper reports can do. However, with high turn-over rates now in newspapers, it becomes more difficult. Everyone seeks to become the established name to readers, so they try to play up certain perspectives or quirks to hook niche readers.

      Being real online works for news reporters who’ve got the personality to carry it through beyond the front page. But doing that often conflicts with the journalist’s desire to be seen as objective, because their out-of-newsroom life becomes watched as closely as their in-newsroom life.

      Do you want “real” or do you want “objective, unbiased, opinion-less”? We’ve reached the point where it’s either/or.

  13. jayne flannery

    A fascinating debate. I find the potential of voice/ personality to create credibility is also scary. Voices and personalities have to be related back to people. God help the truly gifted reporter who has buck teeth or happens to be fat, female and over fifty. One likely scenario is that news delivery will become increasingly marketing led. As a consequence our perceptions of the presenter and how well or poorly they conform to our stereotypes of trustworthiness, objectivity and sadly physical appeal will become ever more important than the quality of news they are imparting.

  14. changingnewsroom

    That’s a very good point, Jayne, and something to consider. Some of the best reporters are cranky.

    However, it’s also true that there are plenty of stereotypes and a limited worldview that thrived in the world of opaque, institution-driven media too – so while there are some disadvantages there may be advantages too in the realm of trust. But there are definitely tradeoffs.

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