The credibility effect of opinion labels on online news

The study “The effects of transparency cues on news source credibility online: An investigation of ‘opinion labels.’” by Andrew Otis from Chronicle of Higher Education Inc. looked at how being labeled “opinion” affects the readers’ perception of news source credibility. 

Trust is obviously important for news media in democracies. ‘Source credibility’ can be furthered by separating news from opinion, as news organizations have traditionally done. In online environments, there are so-called ‘story cards’ that present a quick preview of the content. Google’s ‘Top stories’ are one, common type of story cards.

Readers rely on heuristic cues to assess the credibility of the content. These include brand name, headline, and advertisement placement. Currently, the effect of opinion label on perceived credibility in online news has not been researched much – hence this research.

This study asks the research question R1 “Does labeling opinion content affect perceived source credibility?” and R2 “Why might labeling opinion content affect perceived source credibility?”.  A 3x2x2 study design with 389 US participants was used to study the topic – with the first modifier being news source, the second headline opinion polarity, and the third presence of opinion labels. 

The median age of the participants was 40,5, there were roughly as many males and females and one with different identity, and the sample was 73,3 % white, 11,1 & black, and other categories being mixed race (4,6%), Asian/Pacific islander (6,9%), Hispanic (3,9%) and other (0,3%).

The results were that opinion labels significantly increased the credibility of unbranded content, but not for the same content with Fox News or CNN logo. Brands reduce the effect of cues, particularly ones that have a strong image that invokes emotions. Thus, opinion label may have the greatest effect on unfamiliar brands.

Overall, it appears that separating fact-based news from opinions can significantly improve source credibility. The mechanisms may not be fully identified: there was no support for hypotheses on persuasive intent or source hostility. Other mechanisms were suspected by the author, suggesting need for additional studies investigating other cues, such as the one by Shen, Kasra, and O’Brien (2021) that looked at labelling images as manipulated and found out that it decreased credibility significantly.

When discussing the socio-political implications, the author notes that the larger trends of trust in news media and the need to make informed choices in a democracy are at play here: a relatively simple method of labeling did increase credibility. The implications call for urgency in studies about the topic.

The author notes some limitations: the consumer’s motivations were not addressed and the users were likely not interacting with the news as they normally would. Also, the participant sample skewed liberal and Democratic – although there was no interaction between ideology and opinion labels and perceived credibility.

The article “The effects of transparency cues on news source credibility online: An investigation of ‘opinion labels.’” by Andrew Otis is in Journalism. (free abstract).

Picture: Untitled by Markus Winkler.

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