by Noah Zandan and Mark McKinnon
The most important asset in the news business is trust. When viewers are seeking information, they want to know that it is reliable, especially in the new era of fake news. And if a newscaster loses trust with his or her audience, it’s not long before they see the exits or are reassigned. Just ask Dan Rather or Brian Williams. During one of the most pivotal and dramatic political moments in our history, millions of Americans are seeking credible news sources to help them make informed decisions. And yet it seems wherever we turn—TV, the Internet, or the Twittersphere—we’re confronted by a tidal wave of opinion and spin that makes it almost impossible to find honest commentary on the day’s top stories.
In today’s world, the battle for our trust is often fought along partisan lines. But there’s more to the story than just our ideology. Through years of research, experts who study language have actually isolated patterns in human speech that cause us to trust (or distrust) someone.
So who on TV is best at using trustworthy language? According to an objective linguistic analysis by Quantified Communications, that would be Megyn Kelly.
No wonder she dominated headlines last week with her move to a new network. NBC understands the value of trust and rolled out the red carpet to get the most trusted name in news today.
How does she do it? In part because she is fearless and not afraid to buck conventional wisdom. She is willing to surprise viewers with opinions and ideas that aren’t always aligned with her sponsor. She is willing to show vulnerability. To admit what she doesn’t know when she doesn’t know it (rarely, but she does it), and to acknowledge that she is not always perfect. And in a hyper-partisan environment, she doesn’t lean too far left or right. She comes across as truly independent. At the very least not a rigid ideologue. You know, like most of America.
But a big part of her success can be found in the language she uses. We took a look at leading cable and network anchors. Our “newscaster index” was created from the list of the top-rated names in cable news (Fox, CNN, MSNBC) and the major news anchors from the three broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, ABC). We found that the high-profile newscaster who made waves for her heated exchanges with the president-elect has the distinction of outperforming her peers in the struggle to connect with her audience because her language is designed to engender trust.
The QC Newscaster Trust Index ranks 8 leading newscasters on their use of trustworthy language
Background – How to Measure Trustworthy Language
What does trustworthy language look like, exactly? At a basic level, a trustworthy person is someone we can rely on to say or do what is right. Quantified Communications measures the linguistic patterns of trustworthiness—as identified by academic researchers like James Pennebaker at the University of Texas and David Larcker at Stanford and extensive audience and panel testing—that audiences associate with those traits. The patterns they look at include both those associated with deception, like negative sentiment, and more positive traits, like first person pronouns or a level of detail that is cognitively difficult to convey.
To rank the most trustworthy newscaster, Quantified Communications analyzed a representative sample of each newscaster’s communication across a variety of settings, including casual talk show appearances, in-depth political interviews, and editorial commentary. The goal? To show how the people we rely on for our news use language to shape our perceptions of the day’s top events.
Megyn Kelly leads the pack in every setting
In both casual settings and more formal engagements, Kelly outperformed the newscaster index average dramatically, establishing her language as the most trustworthy in news.
Kelly builds trust in casual settings by admitting to uncertainty
To get the best sense of how someone communicates, it often helps to examine them in an informal setting, where they’re speaking more naturally than they might in a more buttoned-up engagement. For the top newscasters, QC looked at appearances on late-night and day-time TV shows to measure their natural use of trustworthy language.
While Anderson Cooper narrowly edges Megyn Kelly, using 3 percent more trustworthy language, it’s easy to see why she scores so highly. Her relaxed, approachable demeanor is magnetic as she turns the highly unrelatable story of a beautiful celebrity attending the Met Gala into a highly relatable one of a busy, and somewhat clueless, person trying to find something to wear.
So I had no time for that Met Gala, and I’d never been in the Met Gala. But then my assistant was like, “It’s, it’s Monday, and this is Friday. You gotta pick a dress to wear.” I’m like, “Oh, wow. This is a big deal.” I truly know nothing about fashion, so the FOX stylist hooked me up with Badgley Mischka. So I go over. And there’s this guy named Ron, who runs the salon. He’s taking care of me. Then he says, “Go in the back. Put on the dress and Badgley and Mischka will be out in a moment.” You know, I’m so clueless, I’m like, “Is that a joke? Is there really a Badgley Mischka?” But there are two guys, Badgley and Mischka. And they were awesome and they did that dress.
Kelly builds trust by taking full responsibility for her own uncertainty, demonstrating her willingness to own up to knowledge gaps, rather than resorting to deception to try to save face. Anderson Cooper uses a similar blend of humor, humility and insightful self-reflection to build trust in casual settings.
Contrast this easy openness to Bill O’Reilly’s appearance on The View. In a 2012 study, Stanford University’s David Larcker and Anastasia Zakolyukina found that deceptive language contains more references to general knowledge, rather than detailed insights or supported claims.1 And O’Reilly certainly mirrors this finding, where his use of generalities and unsourced statistics lead to language that is significantly less trustworthy than Kelly’s.
We have a problem here, with 10% of our population being hardcore evil people, capable of doing anything. And this what you see, and then the media grasps it, but here’s the unintended consequence. When we’re all kids, most of us, you guys are maybe a little younger, we could go out to play…I’m saying it’s constricted our freedoms, children can’t play outside.
As an interviewer, Kelly builds trust with subjects by evening the playing field
One of the formal settings we measured was in-depth interviews. While establishing trust in these settings can be challenging, given that most of the discussion revolves around the interviewee, rather than the newscaster, Kelly’s interviews are more than 2.5 times as trustworthy as the index average. Take her highly anticipated May 2016 interview with Donald Trump, when she frequently brought the conversation back to herself in an effort to get the GOP nominee to open up to her.
You tell me if I’m wrong. I feel like you’re trying to get out of bounds on the emotional question to the subject of alcoholism, which we discussed. Has it happened that somebody has done something to you? You know, not a death in the family, but has something to you, to wound you?
In their 2003 study, “Lying Words,” James Pennebaker and Matthew Newman of the University of Texas, along with researchers from Southern Methodist University and the University of Washington, found that deceptive speakers tend to dissociate themselves from their messages, using a lower rate of first person pronouns than truthful speakers.
Kelly’s use of personal language here helped her build trust by demonstrating both her accountability for her line of questioning and her own vulnerability to even the playing field between interviewer and subject. Ultimately, she succeeded where many others had failed, getting Trump to drop his customary bluster and answer her questions.
You know, I don’t know. I would say this. It would be something I could certainly think about and, you know, come back with an answer, but I will say this. When I’m wounded, I go after people hard. And I try to unwound myself.
Contrast Kelly’s approach to someone like David Muir. While Muir is generally acknowledged as a strong journalist, he keeps himself at arm’s length from his stories, using 24 percent fewer first person pronouns than the average newscaster in interviews. While Muir’s impartiality is admirable, he does little to take ownership of his questioning, making it hard for the viewer to discern his true motivations, as in his June 2016 interview with then-presumptive nominee Hilary Clinton.
You have talked so often about the unfinished business, not only in this country, when it comes to women’s rights. Is having the first female American president part of that unfinished business?
In commentary, Kelly’s trustworthy language is founded on deep insights
More and more, newscasters are asked to editorialize on the day’s events, as opposed to merely reporting them. With such a premium placed on personal analysis, trustworthy communication is more important than ever before. Here, Megyn Kelly truly shines:
Both academic research and Quantified Communications’ own audience testing have found that listeners are more likely to trust speakers who go beyond generalities and support their messages with detailed commentary about the situation at hand.
When, at the 2016 Women in the World Summit, Katie Couric asked Kelly about the unorthodoxy of the 2016 election, Kelly did just that. She responded with a strong, insightful, and confident answer about her role as a member of the media in upholding the public trust.
I said, “When the post-mortem is done on the coverage of Donald Trump, wherever this race goes, let’s make sure we’re on the side of the angels.” And I, I am proud to tell you that our show has not taken those pressers. It has nothing to do with what happened in the debate, even before the debate we had this policy. We, we have not taken his campaign events wall-to-wall. We don’t wallpaper the show with, with a Donald Trump campaign event. Why? Because we don’t do that for the other candidates, so it’s not fair. And it’s not about the…yes, we all have to worry about numbers, to some extent, it’s the reality of TV news in 2016. But we also have to worry about our souls and journalism.
Contrast Kelly’s response to Bill O’Reilly’s signature Talking Points Memo, a nightly O’Reilly Factor editorial during which O’Reilly talks straight to the American people. In the July 5 Memo that occurred the day that FBI director James Comey had berated Clinton for her handling of classified information, O’Reilly aimed to set the record straight on Hillary Clinton, no spin included. But O’Reilly’s appeals to negative, general arguments led to language 85 percent less trustworthy than the average newscaster we measured.
Now, many who support Mrs. Clinton simply don’t care. They believe she is better for the country than Donald Trump, so issues really don’t matter. Same thing on the other side. Millions of Americans have already convicted Mrs. Clinton of many, many things. They will never vote for her. Here at Talking Points, we’re in the business of informing and, at times, reforming. The negligence thing bothers me. It bothers me. Even if there were no intent to subvert federal law, the subversion happened, and Secretary Clinton is directly responsible for that. If you, the American citizen, leave a child in a hot car and that child is harmed by that, you will be charged with negligence even if your action was unintentional.
Conclusion: Trust in a Polarized Era
Half a century after Edward R. Morrow and Walter Cronkite set the standard for trust in journalism, we find ourselves in an age where these men seem relics of a bygone era. Polarization is higher than ever, while the media landscape is crowded with talking heads, many of whom seem more concerned with promoting ideologies or personal brands than providing honest commentary on the day’s events. And yet, there are still men and women in journalism who win our trust and respect, regardless of ideology.
Morrow and Cronkite rarely showed their cards. While both were men of great personal conviction, they rarely let commentary sneak into their coverage of the day’s events, doing so only when they perceived a great threat to the nation (such as Murrow with Joe McCarthy or Cronkite and Vietnam). But these men also had the luxury to work in a much simpler era. Today, with 24-hour cable news networks, the Internet and social media, we’re hit with more news-related messaging than ever. For better or worse, personality is vital, as it’s the only way for journalists to stand out in such a crowded environment.
The way news today is generated, delivered and received has changed. Murrow was great in his day, but he probably wouldn’t have had much of an audience if he time traveled and covered the 2016 presidential campaign. Viewers want vibrant personalities. They welcome attitude, humanity, and vulnerability. It’s okay to express an opinion or an emotion. But it must be done honestly in the service of the audience, not the broadcaster or their media platform. As in the day of Murrow, it still boils down to trust. It’s just that trust today is measured differently.
In a profession where words are currency, Megyn Kelly has mastered the art—and science—of choosing the right ones to build trust.
Mark McKinnon is a political analyst and television producer. He is an advisor to Quantified Communications. He tweets at @mmckinnon.