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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

The Internet’s attraction as a news medium seems, according to the data, to stem from three characteristics:

These attributes have contributed to more and more Americans making the Web their news medium of choice. In October 2003, 20 percent of people indicated that the Web was how they received most of their news on national and international issues, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. This is up from 14 percent in January 2002.1

At the same time, one of the criticisms of the medium is that the source and accuracy of information may sometimes be harder to discern than in other media. According to these data, people have doubts about the accuracy and reliability of the Web in general, but they have high confidence in the sites they visit.

Accuracy

How accurate do people consider the Web?

The answer, it seems, is a matter of a glass half full or half empty.

Perceptions of Internet’s Reliability, Overall
Survey qu.: ’’How much of the information on the Internet do you think is reliable and accurate?’’
Design Your Own Chart
Source: 2003 UCLA Internet Report; PEJ Research
Responses are from people who use the Internet for news at least once in a typical week.

According to the UCLA study, nearly half of online news users (48.5 percent) believe that most of what they find on the Web is accurate.

Perceptions of Internet’s Reliability, on Favorite Web Sites
Survey qu.: ’’How much of the information on the Internet sites you visit regularly do you think is reliable and accurate?’’
Design Your Own Chart
Source: 2003 UCLA Internet Report; PEJ Research
Responses are from people who use the Internet for news at least once in a typical week. Does not add up to 100 due to rounding.

However, the numbers change when the question turns to sites that respondents visit regularly. Here 81.6 percent of users think that the sites they regularly visit are entirely or mostly accurate (13.1 percent entirely, 68.5 percent mostly). And those numbers remained stable whether someone was a heavy, moderate or light news user.

This may be a function of people rationalizing that they would not visit sites that were not reliable. If they go there, they must be good sites – whether they really were or not. But these numbers could also be a function of people finding through trial and error that there really are havens of reliability on the Web and that they have found them. The fact that old established news brands so dominate the Web would suggest this is the case.

Yet some of the brands that dominate – such as Yahoo or even MSNBC.com – are not old brands. And Web blogging, one of the most exciting aspects of Web journalism, entails much of the risk of the Web. The most likely guess is there is some of both – rationalizing and careful consumption – in these figures.

What is it that people like about the Web for news? The Pew Internet and American Life Project probed this during the war in Iraq. Two-thirds cited the ability to get news from a variety of sources, followed closely by the ability to get breaking news. In addition, more than 50 percent of respondents valued being able to get different points of view from those of traditional news and government sources.2

Why People Go Online For News and Information
Survey of Internet users during the start of the Iraq war
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project report, ‘’The Internet and the Iraq War,’’ April 1, 2003. Respondents were surveyed between March 20 and 25, 2003.

Thus, for all that people may gravitate to major traditional news sites, the sense of being able to go to multiple sites quickly – perhaps comparing what is at MSNBC.com to what is available on CNN.com – is a major factor. So, of course, is speed.

Importance

When asked to rank the importance of the Internet as a source for information from 1 (not important) to 5 (extremely important), more than a third, almost 38 percent, of online news users gave it a 5, indicating how essential the medium has come to be seen. Another third gave it a 4 ranking. Less than 1 percent said it was not important at all. Among heavy Internet news users, the importance was even higher, with 42 percent ranking it as extremely important.

Expectations of Internet, Users vs. Non-Users
Survey qu.: ’’If you need reliable, up-to-date news, would you expect to be able to find this online?’’
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project¸ “Counting on the Internet¸” December 29¸ 2002

From what we have seen above, attitudes about the Web indicate a growing reliance on the medium as an intrinsic source of news and information. People are drawn to the ability to get updated news around the clock from a seemingly endless array of sources. Yet, how much they trust these sources varies. Even if overall there is some doubt about the veracity of what appears online, people tend to gravitate toward sites they come to believe in. As trust in certain sites’ accuracy grows, it is likely that the Web will become an even more important source of news.

Footnotes

1. The 26 sites are: ABC News, Advance Internet, AOL News, BBC World Service, CBS News, CNN, Cox Newspapers, Fox News, Gannett, Hearst Newspapers Digital, Internet Broadcasting Systems Inc., Knight Ridder Digital, LA Times, McClatchy Newspapers, MediaNews Group, MSN Slate, MSNBC, Netscape News, NYTimes.com, The Boston Globe, Time Magazine, Tribune Newspapers, USAToday.com, washingtonpost.com, WorldNow, Yahoo! News

2. Advertising Age, “100 Leading Media Companies,” AdAge.com, August 2003. Companies are ranked by their total media revenues collected in the United States in 2002. The list is available at http://www.adage.com/page.cms?pageId=1018.

3. Howard Kurtz, “AOL Version 2004: You’ve Got News,” Washington Post, December 22, 2003, p. c1.

4. Kathy Kiely, “Freewheeling ‘bloggers’ are rewriting rules of journalism Objectivity? Not here — and the masses eat it up,” USA Today, December 30, 2003, p. 1A.