In theory, it shouldn't matter where we get our news: reporting is supposed to be objective, and you should be able to get the same coverage from BBC, MSNBC, or Fox News. In reality, of course, that's not the way it works. The news media is a big and varied place, and everyone has sources they value more than others. Where a news story is published can affect how much we trust it. And two new studies suggest that this happens to a much greater extent than any of us would probably like to believe.
In one study, which has yet to be published, two researchers at Harvard Business School played around with readers' perceptions of branding and legitimacy. The researchers took a news article about Greek public finances that had originally appeared on The Huffington Post. Then they presented it to three groups of test subjects. One group was told the article had appeared on HuffPo, one group believed it had appeared on the The Economist's Web site, and one group received the article as a standalone piece, with no publication's name attached.
Chrystia Freeland, a correspondent for Reuters, reports what happened next: "When they believed they were reading an Economist story, the respondents rated its quality at 6.9 on a scale of 10; when the same piece was attributed to The Huffington Post, readers gave it a score of 6.1; and when it had no label at all, it scored just 5.4."
Uh-oh! As Freeland goes on to point out, "that is slightly depressing news for any writer who likes to think the response to her work is due solely to its quality, and not to the halo effect of her publisher’s brand." And it's probably also a bit of a knock to The Economist: "According to this quick study, the HuffPo has already built nearly half the brand value of the venerable Economist, even among a research group in which half of the respondents were Harvard Business School students, surely a prime Economist demographic."
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Michigan recently published a summary of their research into public perceptions of the network Al Jazeera English. Among their findings? When survey respondents watched an AJE news clip that had ben re-edited to show the logo for CNN International instead, they rated CNNI as less biased than respondents who'd seen the AJE clip with the correct logo.
In other words, the respondents trusted the Al Jazeera English coverage--but only when they thought they were watching CNN International. When they watched the same clip with the proper AJE logo, they rated both AJE and CNNI as more biased.
The authors of the study say that these findings suggest Al Jazeera English has a trustworthiness problem among Americans that it may not be able to overcome (unless it disguises itself as another channel).
Here at The Atlantic Wire, of course, we enjoy a relationship of complete and unadulterated trust with our readers, which is why they take us at face value when we say that Matthew Weiner looks like Christina Hendricks.