“If you want to be seen as a credible source, you have to be objective, as well as honest and knowledgeable,” said Laura Wallace, lead author of the study and psychology researcher at Ohio State University.
The research implies that bias may play into source credibility, as well as trustworthiness and expertise. Bias was either previously assumed to fall under trustworthiness or not used as a consideration. This means that while a consumer might consider a news source to be knowledgeable and honest, the source might be viewed as biased and therefore not able to be trusted.
“I use the example of grandparents,” Wallace said. “Most everyone agrees that grandparents are honest. But if Grandma says that her grandson Johnny is the best soccer player around, most people will smile politely but not believe her. She’s obviously biased.”
The study, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, conducted several related experiments, including one that examined how the perception of bias affects public opinion on news sources.
Researchers had 169 undergraduate students read a fictitious story of aid workers deciding how to best allocate resources during an Ebola outbreak in the Congo. The aid workers had to decide whether to send limited resources to a rural village where the outbreak began or to a larger nearby city affected by the outbreak.
One aid worker, who previously served in the village in the Peace Corps, suggested sending resources to the rural area. Some students were privy to the aid worker’s history while others read the story with that information omitted.
“As a result, study participants thought his suggestion to send aid to [the rural village] was less credible, but only when they were told he had previously worked there,” the study states.
“The guys in this scenario are all trying their best to contain this Ebola outbreak, they all know what they’re doing, and they are all seen as very honest,” Wallace said. “But people believe that Roger’s experience in one of these regions is affecting his judgment and that he just can’t see things objectively.”
The study finds that while people can still draw useful information from sources they see as biased, the same isn’t true for sources considered untrustworthy.
“In the case of biased, but honest sources, the information they present might only support one side of the issue, but at least people can treat the information as useful for understanding that side,” Wallace said. “Untrustworthy sources may never be that useful.”