Journalists can use Twitter in many different ways. They can reveal personal details or maintain a purely professional profile. They can interact with their followers or focus on tweeting news and information.
Those choices journalists make about how to behave on Twitter can influence what people think about them, according to new research from assistant professor Mi Rosie Jahng of Hope College and assistant professor Jeremy Littau of Lehigh University.
Journalists who interact with their followers are seen as more credible and rated more positively than journalists who use Twitter solely to disseminate news and information, Jahng and Littau found.
The researchers conducted an experiment where 156 students were asked to look at and evaluate different journalists’ Twitter profiles. The Twitter profiles were created based on actual online content, but the profiles were manipulated so that Jahng and Littau could analyze how three specific factors affected what audiences thought about journalists on Twitter.
First, Jahng and Littau examined whether revealing personal details affected assessments of a journalist. Some of the Twitter profiles contained biographical statements that included only the name of the news organization employing the journalist, such as “TV Journalist @KZMA.” Other profiles added several personal details, such as “Made in Philly. Lover of both cake and exercise.”
Second, the scholars varied whether the journalist interacted with the audience. Some profiles displayed eight tweets that used a conversational tone to reply to followers and provide relevant news and information. The other Twitter profiles conveyed the same information in the tweets, but shared a traditional headline before providing the same news and information and did not include any followers’ Twitter handles. As an example, a conversational tone tweet read “Thanks to @AllenMc for her hard work in Venezuela serving others bit.ly/1h17B2.” The more traditional version of the same tweet said “College student organization volunteers in Venezuela bit.ly/1h17B2.”
The third and final factor was that some of the profiles belonged to women and some to men. This allowed Jahng and Littau to examine whether people evaluate Twitter behavior differently depending on the gender of the journalist.
The results revealed that interacting with the audience affected what the study participants thought of the journalist. Journalists who engaged with the audience were rated as more credible and were seen more positively than journalists who did not engage with the audience, but merely transmitted information.
Revealing personal details in one’s Twitter profile had no effect on assessments of credibility. Journalists revealing personal details were rated more positively than those who did not, however. The study looked only at relatively minor instances of self-disclosure in a biography, however. It’s not clear whether a journalist revealing more details would be evaluated as more, or less, credible.
The gender of the journalist also played no role in assessments of credibility or attitudes toward the journalist. Here, Jahng and Littau made several attempts to find an effect. Regardless of whether the Twitter profile included biographical information or whether the journalist interacted with the followers, gender didn’t affect the students’ assessments. Further, it didn’t matter whether the student making the judgment had the same gender as the journalist. The simple story from this study is that gender had no influence.
As with any study, there are limits to what can be learned from this research. It’s not possible to know whether the same results would hold among non-student audiences, nor is it clear whether different manipulations of the Twitter content would have the same effects. Many other factors remain valuable to understand: Does it matter how frequently a journalist tweets? Does the journalists’ ethnicity or geographic location affect perceptions? These sorts of questions can be tackled in future work.
What we do learn from Jahng and Littau is that replying to followers on Twitter is good practice — it can help journalists seem more credible and be assessed more positively, at least among younger audiences.
Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate to analyze:
- What are the business implications of interacting with followers on Twitter? If a journalist engages with a follower on Twitter as opposed to tweeting a link without tagging another user, do more people click the link to the news site?
- What other factors affect how credible people find journalists on Twitter? In their research, Jahng and Littau propose that future work should look at other attributes beyond gender to understand what comprises credibility judgments on Twitter. This could include both attributes of the journalist (e.g., geographic region, race/ethnicity) and how the journalist uses Twitter (e.g., frequency of posting, amount of disclosure).
- Do the same factors affect credibility assessments on other social platforms? Audiences may evaluate credibility differently on Twitter than on Facebook. Investigating the extent to which revealing personal details and interacting with followers matter on different platforms would help journalists understand whether they need to employ different strategies.
Mi Rosie Jahng & Jeremy Littau. (2015). Interacting Is Believing: Interactivity, Social Cue, and Perceptions of Journalistic Credibility on Twitter. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. doi: 0.1177/1077699015606680
Research Review is a monthly series highlighting useful news-related findings from scholarly research papers. It is written by Natalie Jomini Stroud, associate professor of communication studies, assistant director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, and director of the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin. We hope this series will bring new insights to working journalists, as well as spark ideas among academics with an interest in researching the news.