Quality & Credibility

Audio quality makes a difference to listeners, especially when distinguishing the legitimacy of the content. A study conducted by USC and the Australian National University found that audio quality impacts the listener’s trust in what they hear and the source of information.

This research, published in March 2018 in the journal Science Communication, is compelling in a time where fake news is on the rise, and the public continues its distrust of science.

Norbert Schwarz, a co-director of the Mind & Society Center at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, asserts, “When you make it difficult for people to process information, it becomes less credible.”

The study, co-authored by Eryn Newman, administered two experiments: one with two conference videos from YouTube, and the second with NPR Science Friday interviews with scientists. 

In the first experiment, two YouTube conference talk videos on physics and engineering were selected to show to 97 participants. The scientists altered the sound quality using iMovie, and trimmed them into two or three-minute parts.

They first showed a video with good sound quality, with the other having poor sound. The participants were asked to rate the clips from 1 (worst) to 5 (best) regarding the talk and the speaker.

“When the video was difficult to hear, viewers thought the talk was worse, the speaker less intelligent and less likeable and the research less important,” the scientists wrote.

In the second study, which had 99 other participants, the sound quality of two NPR Science Friday interviews were altered. One was between a geneticist and a physicist, and edited down to two or three-minute parts.

“As soon as we reduced the audio quality, all of a sudden, the scientists and their research lost credibility,” Newman said.

The study intended to explore fluency — or, “the ease with which something is processed” — and how it can potentially sway the listener's perspective about information and its sources.

Schwarz and his colleagues noticed that when something is difficult to process, people become skeptical. A study he published in 2017 found that people were distrusting of eBay sellers with hard to pronounce names. An earlier study he conducted showed that people responded better to exercise plans when the instructions were printed in Arial font, rather than Mistral or Brush fonts.

Newman, a former research associate of the Mind & Society Center at USC Dornsife College, noticed in her findings that people were more likely to believe text when it appears alongside a photo, even if the two are unrelated.

“Fluency is associated with no logical problems and high familiarity,” Schwarz said. “It becomes a shortcut for evaluating important things like: Do I know this guy? Have I heard this before? Anything that makes you stumble, makes the information seem less true.”

According to Schwarz, the idea for the study came about after he gave a presentation that was video recorded.

“If I search for myself on Google, I find tons of video of myself giving talks, and some are poor quality,” Schwarz said. “The video camera is too far or there is no mic and it really looks terrible.”

The research results can apply to other situations in business, like job interviews or video/teleconference calls. 

Ultimately, Schwarz and Newman advised this from their study: “Next time you are recorded, make sure you have good sound quality,” they wrote. “Your credibility depends on it.”

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