July 30, 2002

Credibility. It is hard to define, hard to earn, and even harder to regain once it is lost.For decades, news organizations — especially newspapers — have struggled to understand why readers find the media less and less credible. Or why some news organizations, such as cable news networks, have a higher credibility rating than older and more established (and local) news outlets. It is a vexing problem.

The task grew even more complicated eight years ago when the Internet offered the public a whole new, interactive way to obtain news and information. A question that may plague us for the next several decades is, “How do the issues of credibility and reliability play out in the online news environment?”

Media consultant Martha Stone and I have been studying digital journalism credibility for the past year on behalf of the Online News Association. Our report, which was released Jan. 31, is based on more than 50 interviews with industry executives, dozens of case studies, several industry roundtables, and two research surveys. The ONA study, which was funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, also outlines strategies that several sites have undertaken to be more open and more transparent with their readership.

We found that the public has largely accepted digital news as an important source of credible news. Thirteen percent of the online public saying that Internet news is their most trusted source of news.

However, the ONA survey also shows that most of the online public surveyed remains neutral on credibility issues surrounding online news.

This lack of strong opinion is where the online news media may have its greatest opportunity. It is a chance to move those neutral views to positive ground. Or, conversely, there is the real danger that the public will be come critical of some practices and become as critical of online news as it is of newspapers.

The acceptance of online news is good news for digital journalists. Although the older, traditional media has been losing the public’s trust, online news seems to be enjoying a credibility honeymoon, according to a national survey of 1,000 online consumers and 1,500 media workers conducted for ONA.

Rather than vilifying digital news, the online public has largely accepted it as an important source of credible news. Journalists surveyed expected the public to be much more negative about the credibility of digital news. They also expressed more concerns about professional quality than the online public.

The survey also indicates there appears to be a division of opinion about the credibility of digital news between those who work for traditional media organizations — newspapers, broadcasting — and those who work for Web sites. And there is a difference of opinion about credibility between the media workers who took the survey and the online public. Some examples from the report:

  • Media workers were more likely to have made up their minds about credibility and were more likely to be critical than the online public was. Among the rankings produced by the survey’s media respondents, there were five sources (local TV news, local radio stations, other news Web sites, local TV Web sites and local radio Web sites) about which more than 25 percent – and as many as 40 percent – say the source is not credible. By comparison, no more than 12 percent of the public says any particular news source is not credible.
  • When asked to agree or disagree with the statement: “Online news sites are my/consumers’ most trusted sources for news,” 13 percent of the online public agreed, 44 percent had no opinion, and 43 percent disagreed. Media respondents predicted that 79 percent of online readers would disagree with the statement.

The report’s executive summary puts the gap in perception between media and public this way: “… (the) survey’s findings should prompt journalists and the public alike to confront a critical issue: Is there something the media perceives or knows about the ethics and practices of online news organizations or operations that the public does not know? Or are traditional media just being resistant to online news?”

The report also examined the reasons consumers use news Web sites and the most important factors affecting story credibility. Some highlights include:

  • When it comes to credibility, online readers are more concerned about accuracy than timeliness. In a list of 11 story characteristics affecting credibility, online readers rank “story is up to date” fifth, after accuracy, completeness, fairness and trusted source.
  • Asked directly if the separation between advertising and editorial content matters to a news source’s credibility, the public overwhelmingly (95.9 percent) says “Yes, it matters.” But when ONA asked online readers to rank advertising-editorial independence as a variable affecting news credibility, it barely made the list (ninth of 11 attributes, ahead of audio/visual quality and entertainment value).
  • About 40 percent of the online public are confident they can discriminate between advertising and editorial content, with another 30 percent expressing neutrality or a lack of opinion on the issue. That confidence is positively correlated with a reader’s general trust of online news, which increases in time spent online and with the number of times a reader has visited a particular online news site. Familiarity breeds confidence.

The issue of advertising and editorial separation has been a hot discussion topic among online and traditional journalists. The findings about the separation of advertising and editorial content should be reassuring to those site managers who are trying to find new ways of attracting revenue. However, it might be too early to relax about this finding, as poorly labeled content could have a negative affect in the long run.

In addition to the results of its two surveys, the ONA’s Digital Journalism Credibility Study presents a broader discussion of the professional experiences and insights. Among the topics covered are:

  • Who is a journalist? This includes a discussion on journalistic training and experience.
  • What kinds of challenges to credibility have downsizing, reorganization and retrenchment posed?
  • What kinds of training or professional perspectives should media workers in online newsrooms be expected to have – practically and ideally? Technical issues have typically taken precedence over ethical concerns when it comes to newsroom training, but that may be changing in online newsrooms.
  • How are online newsrooms working through the challenges presented by the pressures to produce revenue? The report sites specific ways in which various news organizations are dealing with sponsored content and presents an in-depth discussion of advertising policies and processes.
  • How are online newsrooms handling the Web’s two hallmark characteristics: immediacy and interactivity? While the push to get the story first remains very much a part of the online news industry culture, there’s a clear recognition that getting it first is not as important as getting it right. Brand credibility is at stake.

The issue of digital journalism credibility is broad and deep. The ONA study is a first look at many of the issues journalists — print, broadcast, online — will need to address if we are to take advantage of this new medium that allows almost instant publishing, unparalleled depth of content, and unique interactivity with readers.

Just as developing online news medium continues to be an exciting challenge, so should the opportunity to secure and increase the medium’s credibility with its readers.

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Howard has been in journalism for 40 years. His resume includes positions with the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and…
Howard Finberg

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