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Using Links And Writing About Morality Increase Perceived Credibility

2014 January 29

ResearchBlogging.orgIn an upcoming issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Borah[1] conducted two experiments on 550 people to identify the interactive effect between story framing and embedded links on people reading about politically charged issues – in this case, gay marriage and immigration.  The researchers found that a website with critical analysis of political strategy related to gay marriage (or immigration) is viewed as less trustworthy than a website describing the morality of gay marriage (or immigration), even when the factual information reported by those two websites is the same.  If you’re running a political website, it seems that emotional appeals about the battle for America’s moral center are more likely to lead to increased readership than thoughtful commentary on political maneuvering.  Or in other words, in-depth and critical reporting about politics appears to be the enemy of readership, as sad as that sounds.

When journalists focus their writing upon the morality of political issues (called a “values frame”), readers view the presence of external links as credibility-boosting.  When journalists report the same information but focus upon political strategy instead (called a “strategy frame”), readers react cynically and find the article less trustworthy regardless of how many external links are used.  The precise nature of this relationship will be clearer with an example:

  1. Katie the Reporter writes about how gay marriage is saving/destroying America’s soul (values condition).  She doesn’t include any links to additional content (no hyperlinks condition).  This is the baseline.
  2. Sue the Reporter writes about how gay marriage is saving/destroying America’s soul (values condition).  Throughout her article, she includes links to other articles that support her points (hyperlinks condition).  Readers trust Sue’s article more than they trust Katie’s article.
  3. John the Reporter writes about how various politicians have been using gay marriage to get re-elected or gain political klout (strategy condition).  The same factual information about the gay marriage debate is contained in John’s article as is contained in Katie’s and Sue’s articles.  Whether John includes links or not, readers trust John’s article less than either Katie’s or Sue’s articles.


The proposed reasons for this effect are fascinating:

  1. When you read about a moral outrage that you agree with, you are inclined to believe it because it confirms your opinion (this is called confirmation bias).  This increases the credibility of the site you’re reading.
  2. When you read about a moral outrage that you disagree with, you understand the opposition’s viewpoint even if you don’t agree with it.  This increases the credibility of the site you’re reading.
  3. When you read about how politicians are using what you consider to be a moral issue to further their careers, you become cynical about those politicians.  By association, you also become cynical about the website you’re reading, which decreases its credibility.

The researcher also found that the mere presence of hyperlinks increases readers’ willingness to seek out more information and actual information-seeking behaviors, although framing did not affect either of these two outcomes.

  1. Borah, P. (2014). The hyperlinked world: A look at how the interactions of news frames and hyperlinks influence news credibility and willingness to seek information Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication []
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