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Media Credibility Sinks to New Low: Blame the Internet?

Media Credibility Sinks to New Low: Blame the Internet?

A Pew Research Center study indicates that Americans' trust of the media is the lowest it's been since at least 1985, the first year that the study took readings. What role has the rise of the Web played in this trend? Instead of a handful of trusted national dailies and a few TV stations, news consumers now have a wider variety of sources -- and many more outlets for media criticism.

By Renay San Miguel
09/14/09 12:07 PM PT

The graph that accompanies a Pew Research Center survey on media credibility released Monday shows blue lines heading south: Now just 29 percent of Americans surveyed believe the media gets the facts right, and a scant 18 percent think news organizations are truly objective.

While "Public Evaluations of the News Media, 1985-2009" does not focus on technology's impact on media, those downward trends may intersect with rising chart lines for the use of Web sites and blogs as news sources. Along with that comes better access to information for pointing out journalists' errors and overall critiques of the media.

Another obstacle for mainstream media: After years of conservatives and Republicans leading the press attack pack in terms of accuracy and bias, now the other side of the political aisle is joining that chorus. Pew results show 59 percent of Democrats now think that press reports are often inaccurate, and 67 percent say the media chooses sides on issues more often than not.

Television remains the dominant source for national and international news for those surveyed, but the Internet now places second above newspapers and radio. However, the survey did not ask for individual Web news sources for those choosing the Internet; they could be the online destinations for mainstream media outlets, or they could be idealogically skewed blogs and news aggregators.

Pew sampled 1,506 adults via landline and mobile phones from July 22 to 26.

Web News Users: Louder, Tougher

"Last December was the first time we had gotten a higher percentage saying the Internet, more than newspapers, was a source of national and international news," Pew Research Center associate director Carroll Doherty told TechNewsWorld. "That gap is even a little bit wider now than in December."

It's a louder, much more critical group of news consumers that's choosing the Web, Doherty said. "These people have made the choice to get most of their news online, and as a result they have less regard for traditional (media) outlets and their performance. They're making that choice, and one of the reasons evidently is that they don't have a great deal of positive things to say about mainstream media."

Pew hopes to do more digging next year into individual Web site choices for consumers. Last year, the center did ask about the credibility of some of the better-known sites and aggregators, "and we didn't get terribly high credibility ratings. For Google News and Yahoo News, which in effect are aggregators, [they] got mostly positive marks. But when you got to specific sites -- and there was no attempt to be comprehensive -- Huffington Post, Drudge Report, Salon, those did not fair terribly well among those who were familiar enough to offer an opinion of them."

A Summer of Media Discontent

The drop in media credibility among Democrats probably has conservatives chuckling to themselves while muttering "Welcome to our world," according to David Domke, professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Washington and author of The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America.

"That's just directly attributable to the coverage that has come out in the last nine months of Obama and the kind of conservative responses to Obama -- the Tea Party movement, the (health care reform) town halls. Many liberals believe the mainstream media has been manipulated. They're focusing on shiny metal objects," Domke told TechNewsWorld, referring to the vocal nature of some anti-government protestors. "Many Democrats and liberals think the mainstream media is giving them too much attention."

That is a direct outgrowth of the rise of Internet sources for average Americans, Domke added. "It's all part of the new media environment, where mainstream media simply does not have the monopoly on truth. All it takes is someone who's motivated and Internet-savvy to find lots of other information and interpretations on the same news coverage," he said.

"In the digital age, there's so much more room for people to criticize what the media are attempting," said Mark Glaser, executive editor of PBS.org's Mediashift blog, which charts the technological changes in journalism. "It's very easy online to spread the word that Fox News is biased, or the New York Times is biased, and you've got (media watchdog) groups like Newsbusters on the right and Media Matters on the left, and they're just kind of amplifying those messages on how a news outlet is biased and how they get things wrong."

Technology offers a possible solution for journalists to gain back trust: It involves the same kind of transparency that allows those consumers to criticize the media and point out errors, Glaser told TechNewsWorld. "There's a kind of built-in distrust when we don't know the people who are giving us the news, versus this person online who is very transparent and says, 'this is who I am, this is my background, my biases.' We tend to trust people we know better. This kind of standoffish way journalists have been about who they are, and they won't inject themselves into a story -- that might have worked in a different era, but in this era, people want to know who you are and where you're coming from.

"If you're trying to present an objective report, there's nothing wrong with that, but it's kind of a 'know your source' situation," he added. "The more they know, the more they trust you."


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