In the Internet We Trust: The Impact of Engaging with News Articles

A Gallup/Knight Foundation online experiment

The digital age has created easy access to mass amounts of quickly changing news that people can share, discuss and research within online communities. These abilities have contributed to the spread of misinformation — accidentally or otherwise — making the spread of misleading or inaccurate news a topic of interest for researchers, policymakers and the public at large.

Gallup and Knight Foundation completed an experiment to explore two prominent forms of digital engagement with the news — sharing the story and conducting internet-based research related to the story — and how these activities relate to trust in media. These two forms of engagement may be seen by some as counteracting behaviors. Sharing has the power to spread misinformation, while conducting instant research is, theoretically, one way people can quickly identify questionable news stories and therefore, perhaps, not pass them on.

This report demonstrates the relationships that sharing and conducting research have with trust in media by analyzing the results of the Gallup/Knight Foundation experiment, which used a custom-built news aggregation website.

In the study, all participants were asked to rate how much they trusted each news story that they read. They also were prompted with an option to take further action based on which of two experimental groups they were in:

  • Sharers: In this group, participants had the ability to share a story by following a link. Participants who did so were then asked a series of follow-up questions about why, how and with whom they would like to share.
  • Researchers: Participants could follow a link to find out more about the news story they were reading. Those who did so were asked how they would like to learn more about the article.

Key findings from the experiment include:

  • The act of sharing an article is generally associated with high levels of trust — 71% of articles that readers indicated they would share received a trust rating between a 4.0 and 5.0, with 5.0 as the maximum rating.
  • Most people wanted to share an article for social or personal reasons, not because they were skeptical of the story. The top reasons for wanting to share were to call attention to the story (44%), to express one’s interest in the topic (20%) and to engage with others (18%).
  • Compared with those who would share an article, participants who wanted to engage the article by learning more about it were not as trusting of the news articles they read. In particular, participants who said they would learn more by visiting a fact-checking website or another news website were less trusting than those who said they would learn more by visiting Google or Wikipedia.
  • Consistent with past research, overall trust in media is strongly influenced by a person’s political affiliation and the ideology a particular news outlet is associated with.


Image (top) by Federica Galli on Unsplash.