Scientists have concluded in a new study that credibility of news sources depend on bias as well as honesty and that people draw distinction between information sources that are dishonest and those that are biased. According to the team, a source seen as biased may lose credibility with people, even if they believe the source is scrupulously honest meaning that untruthful – or “fake” – news isn’t the only issue for consumers.
The findings are significant because most research has suggested that source credibility is a combination of trustworthiness and expertise, Wallace said. Bias had not been considered, or was viewed as part of trustworthiness.
The researchers conducted several related experiments. In one study, 169 undergraduate students read a fictitious conversation between aid workers trying to decide how to allocate resources at the beginning of an Ebola outbreak in the Congo. They had to decide whether to allocate limited resources to Rutu, a rural area where the outbreak started, or Poko, a nearby city where the disease had spread.
The aid workers were all described as “highly trained.” One worker, Roger, advocated for sending aid to Rutu and for some participants was described as having worked in that area as a Peace Corps volunteer, which might indicate that he is biased. For other participants, this information was omitted, leaving no indication of bias.
After reading the conversation, participants completed a questionnaire in which they evaluated the aid workers’ proposals.
Results showed that when Roger was described as having a previous connection to Rutu, participants thought Roger was biased in his recommendation to send aid to Rutu, – even though they also thought he was trustworthy, an expert in the field, and likable.
As a result, study participants thought his suggestion to send aid to Rutu was less credible, but only when they were told he had previously worked there.
In addition, the difference between a biased source and an untrustworthy source has a big impact if the source changes positions. In a separate study that has not yet been published, the same researchers found that when untrustworthy sources change their position, it does not make them any more or less persuasive.
But the study found that it was quite surprising when biased sources changed their positions on an issue. This surprise had a positive effect on persuasion.