Online News Credibility

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The number of adults using the Internet to find and read news online is on the rise. One national study by the Pew Research Center reported that weekly use of online news tripled from 11 million to 36 million people in the United States between 1996 and 1998, which the center called “astonishing” (Pew Research Center for People & the Press, 1998). Other studies have shown similar growth in use of the Internet, the World Wide Web, and other online information resources (see, e.g., Jupiter Media Metrix, 2001; Nielsen Media Research, 1999). Multiple concerns about online news and information have emerged in the past decade. These include fear about public access to private information, but also about publication of rumors online, inclusion of personal and institutional biases, the general levels of trust of online news, and the accuracy of information rapidly posted to Web sites during the cycles of breaking news stories. One issue that has emerged because of this growth is the credibility of new information technologies and new media news delivery systems. One analysis reported that barely one in three media Web sites posted privacy policies for information provided both voluntarily (e.g., personal electronic mail addresses or other information taken from user registration forms) and involuntarily (e.g., Web browser cookies or tracking specific page visits and clicks within a Web site) by users (Pryor & Grabowicz, 2001). Even when they are posted, online statements of privacy policy are often lengthy and nearly incomprehensible. They tend to serve more as a legal alibi for the Web site owner than an actual information source for site users. This study investigated the similarities and differences of user perceptions of the credibility of traditional news media delivery systems—newspapers and television news—and the credibility of Web-based online news. Specifically, this chapter investigates news credibility in an attempt to determine the components of news credibility across traditional and new online news media.

CREDIBILITY OF ONLINE NEWS

Because of content accuracy, reliability, and other related concerns, some observers have predicted a troubled future for online news. Johnson and Kaye (1998) reminded us that one of the basic characteristics of the Internet, its potential free access to everybody to upload information without much scrutiny, might affect the credibility of the medium as a source of information. Flanagin and Metzger (2000) noted that whereas newspapers, books, and television undergo a process of information verification before they reach the public, Internet sites do not always use such measures. The lack of editorial and gatekeeping rules similar to those in the traditional print and broadcast news media is central to the problem. This, of course, is likely to increase the importance of branded online news sites such as CNN.com and perhaps emphasize the value of the so-called halo effect of an existing print or television news organization to its online equivalent (e.g., Time magazine and its Web counterpart, Time Online). Schweiger (1998) pointed out that credibility becomes an important heuristic for content selection at a time of information overload. Credibility may also influence the journalistic and commercial success of a medium (Schweiger, 2000). Online news industry observers and newspaper editors have expressed similar concerns over credibility, believability, ethical lapses, newsgathering techniques, and news presentation (Arant & Anderson, 2000; Lasica, 2001). These and numerous other professional issues are frequent topics of discussion and debate on the pages of the Online Journalism Review (http://ojr.usc.edu). Studies conducted in recent years have analyzed the dimensions of the Internet, the Web, and, to a lesser extent, online news credibility. Flanagin and Metzger (2001) observed that much media credibility research has ignored online news and that the bulk of research was conducted prior to online news development. There are differences, these scholars argued, between online news and other more established news media such as television, radio, and newspapers. Online news can be reported at any time. The newspaper, by contrast, is limited to when people obtain the hard copy. Thus, the dimension of timeliness must be considered in studying credibility of the Internet as a medium. Flanagin and Metzger (2001) concluded that the Internet is a “multidimensional technology used in a similar manner to other more traditional media”. They found online conversational uses such as chat rooms, electronic mail, and the telephone that paralleled traditional media. They also determined information-retrieval and information-giving similarities. They concluded that “needs fulfilled by these channels cluster in ways consistent with past research, regardless of the technologies employed to meet them” (p. 153). In an earlier study, Flanagin and Metzger (2000) investigated perceptions of Internet information credibility in comparison to other media. They concluded that the Internet was as credible as television, radio, and magazines, but not newspapers. They found that credibility varied by medium among different types of information sought by audiences, such as news and entertainment. Respondents reported that they did not verify information found on the Internet, but this finding also varied by the type of information needed. The amount of experience using the Internet and how an individual perceived the information were associated with efforts to verify online information. Schweiger (2000) found newspapers in Germany were rated ahead of the Web and television on 9 of 11 credibility items. He also found that Web users and nonusers alike rate the credibility of the Web as remarkably similar to television and newspapers. Sundar (1996) determined that individuals rated stories with direct quotations from sources to be significantly higher in credibility and quality than those without quotations. The use of direct quotations did not appear to affect subject ratings of liking for online news or perceptions of representativeness or newsworthiness of the online news. Kiousis (1999) found news credibility perceptions to be influenced by media use and interpersonal discussion of news. He found general skepticism about news, but people rated newspapers as more credible than online news or television. Online news, however, was rated more credible than television. Like other studies of print and broadcast news media, Kiousis found the credibility rating of a medium was associated with its use. He also found links between discussion of news and perceptions of television news, but not for online news or newspapers. He offered evidence of links between media use and public perceptions of credibility for newspapers and television news, but not in the assessment of online news. Using credibility as their focus, Johnson and Kaye (1998, 2000) concluded that online news media and online candidate literature were perceived to be more credible than traditional print and broadcast news media, even though both online news and traditional news media were perceived to be somewhat credible. No differences were found for news magazines and issue-oriented sources. Finberg, Stone, and Lynch (2002; see also Online News Association, 2001) found one main concern about online news credibility was the perceptions of other journalists, who do not hold it in high regard. The national study determined that online news was a supplementary news source for most users. They also observed that the public has accepted online news as a credible news option, and that many readers did not feel online news credibility was an issue.

MEDIA CREDIBILITY MEASURES

Researchers have utilized a variety of measurements and statistical procedures in their quest to understand media credibility. Bivariate and multivariate approaches have been used, including regression analysis (Mulder, 1980, 1981) and factor analysis (Flanagin & Metzger, 2000; Newhagen & Nass, 1989). Many have used traditional data collection methods such as telephone surveys and laboratory and field experiments. New technologies such as online surveys and other experiments are beginning to be used as well (Johnson & Kaye, 1998; Sundar, 1998). Online surveys using electronic mail and the Web, however, have unresolved methodological issues such as low response rates, self-selection bias, and access (Couper, Traugott, & Lamias, 2001; Schaeffer & Dillman, 1998). Media credibility and believability are closely related and used interchangeably at times in the literature. In conventional use, credibility is typically defined as a facility for inspiring or instilling belief. Something that is credible is thought to offer reason or evidence to be believable or within the range of possibility. If it is believed, it is considered to be true or honest. Believability is a factor in the credibility of a source or medium. Meyer (1973), for example, narrowly defined credibility as whether or not a newspaper was believed by its readers. Robinson and Kohut (1988) found that believability levels for an information medium are not closely related to political and demographic variables that had been found to divide American public opinion. They observed that although the public groups news media according to believability, the resultant groupings are not the same as the differences usually drawn between television and print journalism, although respondents did say that local TV is less likely to be factual than the nation’s major dailies. They concluded that, in 1988 at least, there was “no believability crisis for the press” (p. 188). The study also found that opinions about believability were not associated with one particular medium and, although personality was a factor in believability of individual journalists, it was mostly a factor of organizations and not people or celebrity.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

This study investigates the credibility of news across traditional and online media. It examines the dimensions of news credibility as a threshold to what predicts news credibility. Online news credibility is investigated against use patterns and user demographics using the orientation of the Gaziano and McGrath (1986) credibility scale. Credibility research comparing the Internet to traditional news sources has not been conclusive or consistent (Flanagin & Metzger, 2000). Research about print newspapers and online newspapers suggests additional, perhaps new, dimensions may exist. For example, print newspapers are regarded as a serious news medium. Newspapers, after all, by their very name are committed to news. Television news, by contrast, is regarded as less serious because the medium of television is not primarily associated with news, and credibility studies have shown television credibility to be more based on individual on-air personalities such as news anchors than the news organization or station (Newhagen & Nass, 1989). Television news is often viewed as an addendum to the entertainment medium. Similarly, the Internet and the Web are not solely devoted to news. Thus, the “entertainment” dimension must be considered when print and online newspapers are compared. The following research questions guided this study:

1. What are the primary components of newspaper, television news, and online news credibility?

2. What similarities and differences are found in the credibility dimensions of newspapers, television news, and online news?

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