How Credible are Alabama Newspapers?
Print and Web Readers Differ
By Brett Bralley
Knight Fellow in Community Journalism, University of Alabama
[Download the research report]
Alabama readers who mostly get their news from the newsprint-and-ink version that lands on the lawn seem to trust their newspaper more, while those who primarily turn to the Web format seem to have less confidence in their newspaper.
This is what about a thousand Alabama newspaper readers indicated in an online survey that they chose to answer in March and April 2010. The survey, which was conducted by the Knight Fellows in Community Journalism at the University of Alabama, asked readers questions about their use of their newspaper, how they got their news, and what they valued in terms of digital and mobile media. The survey was voluntary and only given online, therefore it likely reached newspaper readers who frequented the Web more often and who were more Web savvy.
Readers were asked to indicate how credible they found their newspapers as well as indicate which format of their papers they used the most often. The data revealed that while respondents generally trusted their newspapers, their levels of confidence varied depending on which media format they used.
Those who most often used the print newspaper gave their newspapers the highest credibility rating. Those who relied most often on e-mail delivery came next, followed by those who got their newspaper’s news via Facebook and mobile delivery methods. Finally, those who primarily utilized the newspapers’ websites rated credibility the lowest.
Another interesting finding was that readers ranked their newspapers as credible overall, but not completely credible. The survey asked readers to indicate on a 1 to 5 scale (5 being the highest and 1 being the lowest) how they rank their newspaper’s credibility, completeness, importance, accuracy, and its usefulness. Respondents ranked their newspaper on an average of just above a 3.
Finally, those who found their newspaper as more credible overall desired more from their newspaper in terms of mobile delivery. Those who ranked their newspapers as more credible indicated it was more important to them to receive mobile updates from their newspaper, while those who ranked their newspapers lower in credibility indicated that receiving mobile updates was less important.
Why could this be happening?
A 2006 study on media use and credibility, conducted by Carmen Stavrositu and S. Shyam Sundar from Pennsylvania State University, found that “the more people use a certain medium, the more credible they perceive it to be.” The study concluded that medium use had a lot to do with how credible news consumers perceived a news source to be. It said that “(1) medium use, (2) cross-media use, and (3) medium utility play an important role in users’ perception of both traditional and new media credibility.” They argued that the findings of that study “address concerns that newspaper editors as well as Internet publishers might have with regard to the perceived credibility of their chosen vehicle for disseminating information as well as the potential trade-offs in their respective usage.”
A 2008 study conducted by Gunter, Campbell, Touri and Gibson said that people tend to trust news media that they use more often or prefer to use more often. They cited a 2005 study by Abdulla et al. that indicated results that differ with what the Knight Fellows at the University of Alabama have found. According to those results, online news users were found to trust online news more than television news viewers trusted television news and more than newspaper readers trusted newspapers.
Some Alabama news directors ventured ideas about why those who more frequently get their news from the printed product would rank it more credible than those who are gathering their news from the Internet. The answer, said Bob Sims, content manager of al.com, could lie in several places. One possible reason is that those who rely heavily on the printed product trust it more because they are getting billed for it, he said.
“If you pay to receive something, you trust it a little bit more,” Sims explained.
Sims speculated that another factor that could affect how credible news consumers rate the Internet could come from the discussions that occur online in the comments below news stories or in forums.
“I wonder if that conversation — that constant state of ‘you guys don’t know what you’re taking about’ that is done under anonymous screen names can give rise to some of that,” Sims said.
Another possible factor that could explain the difference in how print users and Web users rank credibility is how the news is reported online: Web news is often live coverage, and mistakes occur and changes take place as events progress, Sims said. If news users see corrections or even changes to stories as a story develops online, they might perceive the news source to be less credible. In the printed product, reporters would have all day to triple check facts and let a story develop more.
Al.com has about 2.6 million unique visitors a month. It is the website for three of Alabama’s largest publications: The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and the Mobile Press-Register. At times, al.com and the publications debate whether it is appropriate to post certain material on the Web when it hasn’t been double-checked.
“We have to recognize that there are two divergent needs: my need to have [the information] out there and quickly, and the editor’s need in the newsroom to make sure it is stone cold factual, and so we should push against each other and week to week, day to day, this call is made multiple times, and 99 percent of the time, we get it right.”
One factor that Bob Davis, editor in chief of The Anniston Star, speculates might come into play is the vast amount of information available on the Internet that seeps through headlines as news gatherers visit their newspaper’s website. “I would speculate that with the variety on the Web, you don’t just go to the website when you go online. You can go anywhere.” Compare this to the neat, orderly printed product, Davis said. Readers aren’t having information from several other sources being thrown at them as they browse through those pages.
The study by Stavrositu and Sundar, entitled “If Internet Credibility is so Iffy, then Why the Heavy Use? The Relationship between Medium use and Credibility,” says that credibility with the Internet depends on what kind of information the reader is seeking. If the reader is looking primarily to be informed with the information he gathers, credibility is more of an issue. If the reader is seeking to be entertained, which might be the primary draw for many readers, credibility might not come into play.
There still remains the issue that Alabama newspaper readers are not putting their full trust in Alabama newspapers, according to the Knight Fellows’ survey results. Those readers ranked the Alabama newspapers they read most regularly at just above the midpoint on the 1-to-5 scale, with only one or two respondents venturing to rank their newspapers with a top ranking of 5. Out of all the different characteristics that make up credibility, the characteristic of “complete” got the lowest ratings.
This was also shown in a “Perceived Differences in Credibility” study conducted by Audrey Post, Jonathan Adams, Juliann Cortese, Gary Heald and John DuBard from Florida State University. They looked at perceptions of credibility of traditional media channels and compared that to their online counterparts. They looked at Florida State University students and older Tallahassee residents. The study reported an average of a 3 on a 5-point scale that measured fairness, accuracy, lack of bias, completeness and trustworthiness. The study was cited in a 2009 Poynter article by Jane B. Singer, “Studying newspapers in a time of change,” where Singer compiled several articles that related to credibility in a changing time of journalism.
Dave Aeikens, president of the Society of Professional Journalists suggested in a letter printed in Quill that SPJ work for improving news organization credibility by hosting town hall meetings. The meetings would allow the news outlets to become more transparent to news consumers and allow consumers to understand how journalists do their jobs.
“We want the town hall meeting to be an open discussion between journalists and people who rely on the news to assist their daily lives,” he wrote. “We hope that journalists will explain how they do their jobs and why it plays a vital role in democracy.” Aeikens is arguing that if news consumers trust the news outlets more, they will use the news outlets more.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Survey reports of 2009, about 29 percent of Americans said they think news organizations report the news accurately, while 63 percent say they think news organizations are inaccurate. In 1985, when Pew initially conducted the survey, 55 percent said they thought news stories were accurate, while only 35 percent said they found them inaccurate. The 2009 survey showed the lowest ratings of credibility in more than 20 years of Pew surveys. To explain a decline in credibility and the fact that Alabama newspaper readers do not seem to be ranking their newspapers higher than slightly above the midpoint in credibility, Davis from The Anniston Star speculates that a generational gap could come into play.
“The folks that grew up reading this dinosaur,” he said holding up a copy of The Anniston Star, “and reading it from A1 to D12 every morning with a cup of coffee are going away, and they are being replaced with a generation that doesn’t rely on something to come to them at 5:30 on their lawns. They want (information) more instantly, they want more choices and another part is that they are more skeptical of institutions, like news gathering organizations.”
Why does this matter?
A Poynter Online article by Howard I. Finberg discusses the credibility of the Internet in 2003. The relationship seemed to be weak then, too. Thirteen percent of the online public, when asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Online news sites are my/consumers’ most trusted source for news,” agreed. Forty-four percent had no opinion, 43 percent disagreed. (Finberg, 2002). According to the article, “…(the) survey’s findings should prompt journalists and the public alike to confront a critical issue: Is there something the media perceives or knows about the ethics and practices of online news organizations or operations that the public does not know? Or are traditional media just being resistant to online news?”
With the information that news consumers in Alabama are not ranking their newspapers as credible overall, state news leaders say they should work on making credibility stretch across all media.
“We need to more clearly brand and label content coming from trusted news organizations as being properly edited and confirmed,” Sims said.
Mike Marshall, editor in chief of the Mobile Press-Register, said that as of now, he feels the public relies most heavily on the printed product for the most reliable news source, as opposed to the website, which is with al.com.
“We want to stake our claim to being the first best news source on the Internet,” he said. “Because I think if you were to survey the people in Mobile, they would think of the newspaper as the first best source for news. We want to extend that to the Internet.”
What Marshall suggested might be in the way of that public perception of the Press-Register’s reliability and credibility could lie in the struggle, similar to what Sims described, of deciding when it’s more important to get the facts straight and when it’s more important to get the information online. Another part of the struggle is getting scooped by other news sources, television in particular, he said.
Just as Johnson and Kaye pointed out in 1998, one of the main issues with the Internet is that information can be published without the “rigorous editorial and fact-checking process.” Flanagin and Metzger in 2000 argue that major media such as television, radio and newspapers undergo strict editorial processes and facts are checked over and over. And Gunter, et al. say: “This difference raises questions about the veracity of online news from unknown news brands or from sources that deploy uncertain quality control procedures” (195).
In some cases, Web reporters can bypass the editing process altogether and post their content straight to the Web. An Alabama story that received many online hits this year was about a puppy whose paws had frozen to train tracks. The reporter wrote the story, quickly edited it himself, and posted it to the Web without any further editing process, Sims said.
What content is acceptable for self-editing and what content requires rigorous editing by a superior is being laid out in Alabama. Sims said that in early May, al.com affiliates agreed as a group to write down standards for when self-editing and posting is permissible, when it is acceptable to use unnamed sources, etc. Establishing this code statewide will increase credibility, Sims said.
The idea of stretching credibility across multiple news media can be applied to mobile applications. Those who took the survey and indicated that they found their newspaper to be more highly credible showed that they expected more from their newspaper in terms of mobile delivery. They showed more interest in receiving breaking news updates, feature stories, and traffic updates from their newspaper via their mobile devices.
An issue that comes into play with new media, studies have pointed out, is whether or not the perceived credibility readers have for their newspapers carries over with a new medium: a mobile device.
Davis said he did not notice a difference in news that came to him from a mobile application or from a website or online. What matters to him, he said, is the source. The Anniston Star is one of the few Alabama newspapers that has developed a mobile application. Theirs was developed in May, and though Davis said the Star was behind the curve in comparison to the national media, it is ahead of most Alabama newspapers.
Some research has looked at whether or not the source’s brand can carry through different media. A study by Greer, et al presented an opinions piece in three different formats: through the San Francisco Chronicle’s website, a San Francisco Chronicle blog, and a no-name blog. While the content on the website was rated the highest quality of information, the study indicated that readers processed the Chronicle blog piece the same way as they did the no-name blog. The brand was not carrying the same credibility with the blog as the website.
While news editors are still trying to figure out how to best allow credibility to follow into different formats, Mike Marshall of the Press Register is optimistic about the future for his paper.
“I predict that in our market, the Press-Register nameplate will be gleaming in 50 or 100 years from now,” he said.
The objective, he said, is finding a solid business model, that will allow readers to value the Internet content as much as the print product, and therefore, will allow Internet content to make a profit.
However, the bottom line, he said, is producing something credible.
“(Readers) want to know what they’re reading is accurate,” he said.
And providing something they perceive as credible is quite a balancing act, he concluded.
This article relies on an online survey of readers conducted by the Knight Fellows in Community Journalism in spring 2010. Other sources for this article include:
Aeikens, D. (2009). Restoring the public’s faith in news media credibility. Quill, 97(3), 3.
Flanagin, A. J., & Metzger, M. J. (2000, Autumn). Perceptions of Internet information credibility. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 77(3), 515-540.
Gunter, B., Campbell, V., Touri, M., & Gibson, R. (2009). Blogs, news and credibility. Aslib Proceedings 61(2), 185-204.
Greer, J., Pan, P., Frank, K.M., Hobson, P.L., & XXX, C. “Title” DON’T HAVE REST OF CITATION.
Jo, S. (2005). The effect of online media credibility on trust relationships. Journal of Website Promotion, 1(2), 57-78.
Johnson, T.J., & Kaye, B.K. (1998). Cruising is believing? Comparing media and traditional sources on media credibility measures. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 75, 325-340.
Stavrositu, C., & Sundar, S.S. (2006). If Internet Credibility is so Iffy, then Why the Heavy Use? The Relationship between Medium Use and Credibility. College of Communications, Penn State University. Submitted to the Mass Communication Division to be considered for presentation at the annual conference of the International Communication Association in 2006.
Pew Research Center. The Media: more voices, less credibility. A review of Pew Research Center for the people and press findings.
The University of Alabama’s one-year Master’s Program in Community Journalism, or ComJ, encourages students to think critically about the role news plays in community and to explore new ways to serve communities through the evolving practices of journalism.
Read more about the ComJ program.