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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Why do people increasingly prefer the Internet for news? And how much do they trust what they get there, from the Internet overall and online news in particular?

The answers appear to be that control and convenience drive the Internet’s appeal. But with time, trust in the medium is not growing, it’s shrinking.

The Appeal of the Internet

When it comes to the Internet’s appeal, a year ago we found that its convenience and a variety of viewpoints were its key attractions. In 2005, new research again suggests the importance of convenience. According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, nearly three quarters (73%) say they prefer the digital version of a newspaper to the print version because it is more convenient.

Cost may be less of a factor, which may encourage producers who want to start charging. Only 8% told Pew they preferred the net because it was free.1

Control or interactivity is a major appeal as well. A survey conducted by the Online Publishers Association in partnership with the Media Management Center at Northwestern University found that the top driver for online site use was that the Internet “entertains and absorbs me.”

The researchers also studied engagement with newspapers and television and found that several other drivers were unique to the Internet, often related to control. These included: “connects me with others,” “tailored for me,” “guides me to other media,” “a way to fill my time,” “my guilty pleasure,” and “tries to persuade me.”2

Trust

Yet for all its obvious advantages, access and interactivity may also be part of the Internet’s Achilles heel as an information source. Last year we reported that even as the Web was becoming a ubiquitous and accepted news source, there was evidence that trust in the Internet was declining.3

And new survey research shows that the trend continues. In 2004, the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School found that the proportion of users who believed that most or all of the information on the Internet is reliable and accurate had declined for the third consecutive year, to just 49% — a steep decline from 58% in 2001.4

News Web sites are as trusted as traditional news media, according to the data. A majority (68%) of those who go online say they believe “almost all” or “most” of the content on their primary online news site, according to survey research done by Consumer Reports. That level of trust is about equal to those who trust newspapers and television news.5

Trust in news Web sites also trumps trust in other kinds of Web sites. Indeed, no other type of Web sites registered a majority of users who could trust the site to provide accurate information most of the time, according to Consumer Reports. And the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School found that the public considered established media and government sites more credible than information posted by individuals. Nearly 8 in 10 (79%) said most or all the information on established media sites such as the New York Times or CNN.com was reliable and accurate, with government (78%) right behind. Meanwhile, just 12% said the Web sites posted by individuals were reliable and accurate.6

Trust in Organizations for Accurate Information

2005

2002
Always/Most of Time
Some Time/Never
Always/Most of Time
Some Time/Never
Newspapers and TV News
56%
42
58
41
News Web Sites
54%
39
Web Sites for Children
34%
36
Web Sites that Provide Advice to Consumers

31%

62
33
59
Large Corporations
29%
69
32
66
Web Sites that Offer Products for Sale
26%
69
29
64
Blogs

12%

57

Source: Consumer Reports Web Watch, “Leap of Faith: Using the Internet Despite the Dangers,” October 26, 2005.

One episode that raised interest about the credibility of individual postings unfolded in early December, 2005. After an anonymous poster had published a largely fictional entry for John Siegenthaler Sr., a former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville , on the online encyclopedia site Wikipedia. Siegenthaler wrote about the posting in an op-ed in USA Today. Later, an amateur cybersleuth traced the posting to a computer in Nashville , which led to the perpetrator’s eventual confession. While no civil suits were filed, the incident did raise questions about the reliability of Wikipedia and other online sites that generally do not have the same levels of accountability that traditional news sites do.

There is also research that suggests Americans are demanding that the Internet, particularly news sites, deliver more on its self-championed capacity to provide transparency and accountability. And those expectations have only increased over the past few years. Almost 7 in 10 (69%) of online users consider it very important for news Web sites to clearly label all advertising, and that ads must be distinguishable from news and information — up 10 points from 2002. And more users want news sites to prominently display their pages for corrections and clarifications: 44% now report this as very important, also an increase of 10 percentage points from 2002.

Users also want to be able to communicate with editors and reporters: 47% say it is very important for news sites to provide readers with e-mail addresses to contact the site’s editorial staff, up from 36% in 2002.7

As for blogs, despite the desire for more accountability, people are drawn to them even though they don’t necessarily trust them. This skepticism is true even among those who read blogs.

Just 1 person in 8 (12%) considers the information on blogs believable most of the time. Meanwhile, 36% say blogs are accurate some of the time, with another fifth (21%) reporting they are never or almost never accurate. And just 23% of blog readers say they can trust blogs at least most of the time while three quarters (73%) say they believe only some or nothing of what they read on blogs.8

We have also recently witnessed a growth in the use of digital photography over the Internet. Concerns about fakery surrounded the publication of a Reuters photograph of President Bush at the United Nations writing a note to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice about a “bathroom break” that was widely and quickly circulated both at home and abroad. The photo, though embarrassing for the president, was real.

Does the American public worry about digitally enhanced, modified or even fake photos? Apparently not as much as one might suspect, according to survey research. While nearly half (47%) of online users say they have come across a manipulated digital photo, more than two thirds (67%) say they trust online news sites a lot or somewhat to use authentic photographs; 30% have little or no trust .9

Young Americans and their Attitudes Toward the Web

What do we know about the attitudes toward the Web as a news and informational source for the young, who are among the Web’s heaviest users?

In 2005, we learned that many young people consider the Internet to be a learning tool. According to data from the Carnegie Corporation of New York , 41% of Americans 18 to 34 say the Internet is the most useful way to learn, compared with 15% for local television, which ranked second.10

There may be some evidence that young people view online news as slightly more trustworthy than older generations do. The Carnegie Corporation found that “being trustworthy” was considered a very critical reason why young people prefer the Web for news to other media platforms.11

There also appears to be a generation gap on the question of blog credibility. A survey by Hostaway.com, a Web hosting company with offices in Chicago, Tampa and Vancouver, found that Americans under 30 were much more likely than their older counterparts to consider blogs credible sources of information. In fact, blogs were found to be just as credible as traditional media among this age group.12 That is not surprising when we consider that blog use is considerably higher among younger Americans than among older ones.

Footnotes

1. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Public More Critical of Press, But Goodwill Persists,” June 26, 2005. Available online at: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=248.

2. “New Online Publishers Association Study Identifies Key Experiences That Drive Web Usage,” Online Publishers Association press release, June 1, 2005.

3. As more evidence about the mainstream acceptance of online journalism, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced in December that it would begin accepting nominations for Breaking News Reporting and Breaking News Photography published solely online. Previously, material from these two categories was required to have appeared in the newspaper’s print edition as well.

4. Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School, “Fifth Study by the Digital Future Project Finds Major New Trends in Online Use for Political Campaigns,” December 7, 2005. Available online at: http://www.digitalcenter.org/pdf/Center-for-the-Digital-Future-2005-Highlights.pdf

5. Consumer Reports WebWatch, “Leap of Faith: Using the Internet Despite The Dangers,” October 26, 2005. Available online at: http://www.consumerWebwatch.org/pdfs/princeton.pdf.

6. Center for The Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School, “Fifth Study by the Digital Future Project Finds Major New Trends in Online Use for Political Campaigns,” December 7, 2005. Available online at: http://www.digitalcenter.org/pdf/Center-for-the-Digital-Future-2005-Highlights.pdf.

7. Consumer Reports WebWatch, “Leap of Faith: Using the Internet Despite The Dangers,” October 26, 2005. Available online at: http://www.consumerWebwatch.org/pdfs/princeton.pdf.

8. Consumer Reports WebWatch, “Leap of Faith: Using the Internet Despite The Dangers,” October 26, 2005. Available online at: http://www.consumerWebwatch.org/pdfs/princeton.pdf.

Moreover, it should be noted that a third (31%) of online users could not assess blogs’ accuracy, supporting other survey research that shows Americans are still relatively unfamiliar with the blogosphere.

Lydia Saad, “Blogs Not Yet in the Media Big Leagues,” The Gallup Poll, March 11, 2005. Available online at: http://poll.gallup.com/con10t/default.aspx?CI=15217.

9. Consumer Reports WebWatch, “Leap of Faith: Using the Internet Despite The Dangers,” October 26, 2005. Available online at: http://www.consumerWebwatch.org/pdfs/princeton.pdf.

10. Carnegie Corporation of New York, “Use of Sources for News.” Available online at: http://www.carnegie.org/pdf/AbandoningTheNews.ppt#0.

According to survey research done by the Annenverg School Center for the Digital Future at USC in 2005, among users age 17 and older, 56.3% consider the Internet to be a very important or extremely important source of information for them — up a bit from 2003 (55.2%). Looking exclusively at online habits for information on political campaigns, the study’s authors wrote that “more than three quarters of users who went online for political campaign information sought insight regarding issues and candidates about which they were undecided.” The study also showed that a larger percentage sought campaign information on traditional Web sites than from information placed online by the candidates. Center for The Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School, “Fifth Study by the Digital Future Project Finds Major New Trends in Online Use for Political Campaigns,” December 7, 2005. Available online at: http://www.digitalcenter.org/pdf/Center-for-the-Digital-Future-2005-Highlights.pdf.

11. Carnegie Corporation of New York, “Use of Sources for News.” Available online at: http://www.carnegie.org/pdf/AbandoningTheNews.ppt#0.

12. Rob Lever, “Blogs take giant step towards mainstream,” AFP, October 19, 2005.