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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

What does the public think of the Web as a news source? Do people use it for some things more than others? Are they growing more trusting of the Web than they used to be? The answers, in some cases, may surprise.

An examination of the latest data on public attitudes suggests three themes:

Reliability and Accuracy

One might have thought that with time and familiarity, trust in the accuracy of the Web would grow. Evidence suggests that may not be the case.

According to research from the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future, the number of users who think most of the information on the Internet is reliable and accurate has been declining since 2001. In the summer of 2003, 49% said they thought that most such information was reliable and accurate, down from 51% in 2002 and 56% in 2001. The number was 52% in 2000.1

At the opposite end, the number of those who believe that only half the information on the Internet is reliable and accurate is rising, and in 2003 passed 40% for the first time in the four years of the study.2

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: The Digital Future Report, USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future, September 2004
Responses are from people who use the Internet for news at least once in a typical week.

Additional research in 2004 suggests that trust varies dramatically depending on the site. According to the USC Annenberg School’s Center for the Digital Future, large majorities (74%) think that most or all of the information on established news sites and government Web sites is reliable and accurate. The number drops to just 10% for pages posted by individuals.3

Established sites used to be thought of as the online offshoots of news outlets in other genres, such as The New York Times and CNN. Now, though, Web-only search engines such as Google and Yahoo! are used by 70% of online news users and considered by many to be “established.”4

How Much of the Internet is Reliable and Accurate?
User perception by type of website.
Design Your Own Chart
Source: The Digital Future Report, USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future, September 2004
qu: How much of the information on specific types of Internet sites do you think is reliable and accurate?

As reported in the section on audience established sites like CNN and Yahoo! are the ones people regularly visit, while blogs are still not a central part of the online news experience. Not surprisingly, then, users rate the sites they visit regularly higher as well. The USC Annenberg School reports 68% of Internet users saying most (61%) or all (7%) of this information is reliable and accurate. In 2002, though, more than eight in ten said most (69%) or all (13%) was reliable.5

It appears, then, that as people gain more familiarity with the Web, they are becoming more educated and more selective about online information. Brand quality transfers to the Web; people sense that the Internet is more than one medium. And the key to the popularity of the major sites may be that they combine the reliability of the old media with the convenience and control of the new.

On the other hand, the declining trust, even in sites people use most, is worrisome. People may be sensing over time that the nature of the Internet, the speed and culture of the medium, may erode the reliability even of organizations they otherwise trust.

The Appeal of the Internet

What attracts people to the Internet?

As we found a year earlier, variety of viewpoints and convenience appear to be at the heart of what makes the Internet a useful news source. A March 2004 survey conducted by Pew Research found nearly half of respondents saying they used the Web for 2004 election news “because you can get information from a wider range of viewpoints on the Web”; 37% said “getting information online is more convenient.”6 In 2003, online users displayed similar reasons for getting news online about the war in Iraq. Then, two-thirds cited the ability to get news from a variety of sources.7

Why People Go Online for Election News
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, News Interest Index, March 25, 2004
qu: Which of the following comes closest to describing WHY you go online to get news and information about the 2004 election?

When it came to election news, Internet users seemed to have followed through on this desire for a wide-range of sources. A Pew Internet & American Life Project study in the middle of the 2004 election season concluded that even when such variables as political interest, age, and education are controlled, “Internet users have greater overall exposure to political arguments and they also hear more challenging positions.” 8

If what users are looking for is a range of viewpoints, it seems only logical that the search engine has found its place as an extension of the overall online news experience. Search engines like Yahoo! and Google and the widely anticipated MSN Search from Microsoft, allow a user to find a seemingly endless stream of voices on any given topic.

What does not at first seem to track with these findings is users’ predilection toward established sites. If they trust sites like CNN and The New York Times more – and indeed, those top sites command the vast majority of traffic – how do we explain a mix of views as their top priority? One possibility is that this gets at the distinction between what they like about the Internet overall – the possibility for endless voices, versus what they look for in specific sites themselves: reliability. Or it may represent the perennial discrepancy between what people say they want and what they actually do.

Do the reasons differ according to age? Perhaps. A qualitative study released by the Online Publishers Association on the media habits of the 18-to-34-year-old audience found that convenience and accessibility are the two factors most determining which medium this age group uses. According to the report, people in that group “often have unpredictable schedules and may only have small slivers of time available to use media. As a result, the Internet, which is pervasive and accessible on their own time, has become a dominant medium in the lives of these consumers.”9

There was also evidence in 2004 that the Internet was encouraging a certain kind of news consumption that some experts did not anticipate.

When television emerged as the dominant news source in America in the 1960s, social scientists began to identify something that might be called accidental or incidental news consumption. Because television forced viewers to watch the whole program to see the news they were interested in – rather than being able to pick and choose stories the way they did with newspapers – people were becoming knowledgeable about things they didn’t know they were interested in. They were gaining accidental knowledge.

The Internet, it was expected, would erode that, since it allowed infinite levels of control by consumers over what they were interested in.

Some of the news-consumption data developed in 2004 suggests it hasn’t been that simple. Indeed, data from the Pew Research Center in May found an increase in the number of Internet users who say they come across a news story when going online for another purpose. Seventy-three percent of online users told Pew they bumped into news after going online for an another purpose, up from 65% in 2002 and 55% in 1999.10

It may be that the ease of navigation encourages people to wander more.

Terrorism and the Internet

With homeland security and the war on terrorism overriding public concerns, how does the Internet fit in?

The Council for Excellence in Government conducted surveys on this subject in February 2004.11 The answers suggest that the things that make the Internet so attractive for people generally matter less when it comes to civil defense.

And when it comes to preparation, the Internet holds particular appeal, especially for access to the government.

In a crisis, an emergency, the old and more establishment media – perhaps with stronger connections to officialdom – still hold stronger appeal. That might be surprising considering the Web is often prized for its breaking news capacity.

The study found that three in ten people say they would go to government Web sites (28%) or news Web sites (28%) if they wanted to learn how to prepare for a terrorist attack, learn about the latest threats, and receive guidance on security precautions; a majority (73%) say they would use television.12

Where People Turn to for Homeland Security News
Percent saying first or second source.
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Council for Excellence in Government, America Speaks Out About Homeland Security Survey, February 2004
qu: If you wanted to prepare for a terrorist attack, learn about the latest threats, and receive guidance on security precautions, which of the following sources would you turn to first? (If choice: ASK): And which source would you turn to second?

However, the Internet wanes in popularity when people are asked where they would get information about a terrorist attack on their own community.

Primary Source for Local Homeland Security News
Percent saying primary source
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Council for Excellence in Government, America Speaks Out About Homeland Security Survey, February 2004
qu: ’’If there were a terrorist attack on the community where you live, which of the following sources would you turn to first for information?’’

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