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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

Journalists Are Still Wary of Online News   

Study finds Internet news consumers are more inclined to trust traditional sources.

By Chris Harvey
Harvey, a former AJR managing editor and a former associate editor at washingtonpost.com, teaches Web writing and publishing at the University of Maryland.     

Journalists are concerned about the credibility of digital news, but the online public says it's a nonissue.

That's a key finding of a survey commissioned by the Online News Association to gauge perceptions of how well online sites are meeting basic journalistic standards.

"The public is more sure of us than our own colleagues," says Rich Jaroslovsky, president of the Online News Association and a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal.

"It's our peers who don't frankly understand what we do or know," adds Michael Silberman, an MSNBC.com managing editor.

Online readers and journalists across all mediums were surveyed between January and September in a study funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Study highlights were presented this fall at a conference of Internet journalists in Berkeley, California.

The survey included 1,027 members of the U.S. online public and 1,397 journalists. A smaller group of journalists was interviewed face-to-face to flesh out thoughts and concerns.

The majority of the Internet news consumers were either neutral or positive on the credibility question: When asked if online news sites were their most trusted source for news, 13 percent agreed, 44 percent said they were neutral or had not yet formed an opinion, and 43 percent disagreed.

The journalists inaccurately assessed the mood of the public, erroneously predicting 79 percent of them would disagree with the most-trusted-source question.

Among other findings: Both the public and journalists viewed national news sources as more credible than local ones. When asked to rank 16 types of news outlets, 95 percent of journalists ranked national newspapers as their most credible sources for news. Of the public, 83 percent ranked cable TV news most credible. Study codirectors Martha Stone and Howard I. Finberg wondered if the disparity between the public's and the journalists' perceptions was due to a difference in standards. "Are the media's standards for evaluating credibility higher than the public's?" their report asks. "Or is there something the media perceives or knows about the ethics and practices of online news that the public does not know?"

Dianne Lynch, editorial director of the project, says some of the concerns that journalists raised included: • whether editorial decisions at online news sites are being made by journalists; • if there's enough of a separation between editorial and advertising decisions at digital news sites; • if downsizing and reorganizations hurt editorial quality and credibility.

Speakers at ONA's conference echoed some of those same concerns. Keynoter Walter S. Mossberg, who created the Personal Technology column in the Wall Street Journal, said although "there is a good body of ethical journalism on the Web," he's "bothered by the power of the media to mix up separate things" — such as editorial and advertising content.

Douglas B. Feaver, executive editor of washingtonpost.com and treasurer of ONA, says some early and much-publicized gaffes by news Web sites — such as a few made during the early days of the Monica Lewinsky story — may be resonating with professional journalists. He adds most of the larger news Web sites have addressed the staffing question — replacing tech workers in their newsrooms with journalists. "We're hiring people with journalistic skills," Feaver says.

Standards, he and other Web journalists stressed, are evolving.

Jaroslovsky says he's optimistic trust will grow with time. He likens traditional journalists' apprehensions about Web news to those expressed by broadcast journalists in the early 1980s when an upstart cable network called CNN was seeking a spot in the White House press pool alongside the three networks.

"It's déjà vu," he says.

Edited by Jill Rosen