Like millions of others around the world, I love listening to podcasts. It is one of the most efficient online mediums, only requiring the ear, so that learning and laughing can be enjoyed on the move.
Most of the podcasts I listen to are improvised conversations between the host and their guest which can be incredibly engaging to the point where I sometimes feel as if I’m a part of the conversation.
As it turns out, this engagement or connection that I experience is a prominent psychological phenomenon known as parasocial relations.
When listening to podcasts with media figures that we identify with (i.e., hosts or their guests), we are likely to experience parasocial interactions (PSI), which assumes the form of a face-to-face interaction, provoking emotions and feelings1.
When prolonged into long-term listening and there is an accumulation of parasocial interactions, a parasocial relationship is then developed.
My interest in podcasting coupled with my discovery of parasocial phenomena prompted me to conduct a study on how the concept might affect listeners’ perceptions of credibility when listening to podcasts.
Today, anybody with an idea and an internet connection can reach a massive network of people. As more information is shared by more individuals, the cacophony of voices makes it harder for people to be properly informed.
Early into my research, it became evident that the connection listeners have with podcast hosts can affect the dissemination of misinformation in the mediasphere.
Media consumers have become increasingly sceptical of mainstream media outlets3 and are now spoiled with alternative avenues for media consumption.
The lack of universal standards and values online is testing traditional journalism, leaving legitimate publications susceptible to alteration and misrepresentation from noncredible sources.
Considering the countless hours of improvised podcasts that are published and consumed every day, moments of misinformation are a sure thing.
It should also be acknowledged that most podcasters would be classified as citizen journalists or amateur journalists who are not equipped with appropriate journalistic training or credentials, increasing the chances of nonfactual slipups.
This becomes especially concerning when mainstream podcasters with enormous followings address civic issues, because a seemingly simple nonfactual slipup can leave a massive network of listeners ill-informed.
My study, however, took a more nuanced view – focusing on nonmainstream podcasters. I was interested to discover the extent to which lesser-known podcasters could spread misinformation and whether listeners assessed their credibility effectively, if at all.
I also chose to home in on young adults – the demographic transitioning from secondary school to university or the workforce where they are introduced to the ‘real world’.
During this transition, the importance of decision-making escalates for young adults and suddenly has an impact on their livelihood. They frequently rely on the internet for financial decisions or medical advice and other crucial decisions in life4.
The hypothesis for the study was that young adults’ perceptions of credibility would be blurred by the parasocial interactions they experience with the podcast host.
Two short podcast episodes were produced for the comparative study and both discussed the same key points on the topic of Facebook advertising.
The sample population of young adults was randomly split into two groups, with each listening to one of two short podcast episodes hosted by two distinct fictional characters.
One of the episodes was presented by Roger, a university professor. The episode was targeted to a more mature audience and was rigorously factual.
The other episode was presented by Jack, who describes himself as “a blogger and a podcaster”, a younger host who was more suited to the sample population. This episode featured both accurate and inaccurate information.
After listening to their episode, the participants answered a survey to assess perceptions of credibility and levels of parasocial interaction.
As expected, Jack scored significantly higher levels of PSI with his listeners when compared to Roger, mainly because of aspects of similarity and relatability.
The podcast listeners who experienced higher levels of PSI were more likely to perceive the podcast host as credible. Conversely, the absence of PSI led to scepticism about the information despite its accuracy.
Scores for perceived credibility were similar for Jack and Roger, though Jack won out by a small margin. The results showed that Jack was perceived as credible primarily due to PSI, whereas Roger was perceived as credible due to elements of competence like expertise and authority. Roger’s slightly poorer credibility score can be explained by the lack of PSI experienced by his audience.
Interestingly, participants showed an awareness of elements attached to PSI (such as similarity, relatability and humour), though PSI still evidentially played a part in the credibility of the host and the scepticism of the audience.
In Australia, nine in ten people know about podcasts and the popularity of the medium is growing every year5.
Time will tell if podcasting is a passing trend or if it remains a major source for information consumption. Whatever the outcome, passionate people are publishing unfiltered podcasts on a myriad of topics offering listeners a personal listening experience.
The lack of regulation and gatekeeping online would suggest that it is impractical to condemn podcasters for each count of misinformation.
Instead, the more pragmatic solution to avoid this pitfall of podcasting would be to put the onus onto the listener. The spread of misinformation can be avoided if the listener has the skills and knowledge to understand that slipups are inevitable.
- Schramm, H. & Hartmann, T., 2008. The PSI-Process Scales. A new measure to assess the intensity and breadth of parasocial processes. Communications-European Journal Of Communication Research, 33(4), pp.385–401.
- Trussler, M. & Soroka, S., 2014. Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative News Frames. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 19(3), pp.360–379.
- Carr, D. Jasun et al., 2014. Cynics and skeptics: evaluating the credibility of mainstream and citizen journalism. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 91(3), pp.452–470.
- Metzger, M.J. & Flanagin, Andrew J, 2008. Digital Media and Youth: Unparalleled Opportunity and Unprecedented Responsibility, Digital media, youth, and credibility, pp.5-28.