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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

What is it about the Internet that Americans value? How much do they trust the Web, particularly as it includes more and more news from non-traditional news sources, such as blogs and other forms of citizen journalism? And what attitudes do young Americans in particular hold toward the Internet?

Three conclusions stood out this year:

  • Americans value the Internet most often because of its convenience and because of the ease with which they can find what they want, when they want.
  • And after several years of declining trust, a majority of Americans once again say the Internet is reliable and accurate.
  • Finally, young people appear to be eager consumers of online news but are largely skeptical about the accuracy of blogs.

As we reported in previous years, convenience still reigns as the most appealing quality of the Web. According to research from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, nearly 4 in 10 (39%) Americans say convenience and accessibility are the reasons they most prefer the Web to other platforms for news.1

Convenience was also the No. 1 reason why Americans went online for news on the 2006 elections. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 7 in 10 (71%) Americans cited convenience as a major reason for obtaining political news and information over the Internet.2

The second most-popular aspect of the Web is its navigability and the fact that it can be browsed and custom-tailored to one’s particular interests. Roughly one in five (19%) reported that to be the case, Pew researchers found.

And the third most popular item in the survey was that the Web provided up-to-date, breaking news. Fourteen percent offered this as the most distinguishing quality of the Internet.

Most Appealing Aspects of Internet News
Among regular online users
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Source: The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 30, 2006
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After a three-year slide, overall trust in the Internet appears to have inched up again, according to survey research from the USC Annenberg School’s Center for the Digital Future. In 2006, more than half (55%) of Americans age 12 and older who go online considered the Internet “reliable and accurate.” That is up from 49% in 2005, but still slightly below what it was back in 2001 (58%).3

Other survey data that asks about which media platforms are most accurate finds the internet trailing more traditional platforms.  The 2006 survey, conducted by Lexis Nexis, a searchable, electronic archive of news media articles, asked Americans 25 to 64 to provide their top three choices for the most accurate, current information. Network and local television was mentioned most frequently (50%), followed by radio (42%), and newspapers (37%). Just a quarter (25%) volunteered “Internet sites of print and broadcast media,” as one of the top three and only 6% named blogs or podcasts.4

Looking ahead, the lines between traditional media and citizen-generated content could become blurry. Though there are questions about how much of the citizen-generated kind currently exists, some Web sites are increasingly allowing photos and commentary from citizens to appear alongside content produced by professionally trained journalists. The BBC has done so for some time now. In December 2006, Reuters and Yahoo announced a plan to include photos and video shot by the public on their Web sites. “This is looking out and saying, ‘What if everybody in the world were my stringers?’ ” said Chris Ahearn, president of the Reuters media group.5

How will those changes affect public trust in online media? Will the public show increasing levels of trust toward citizen-generated content if it is hosted on sites affiliated with traditional news companies, like Reuters? Or will the public continue to display some skepticism towards online media?

Young Americans and Their Attitudes Toward the Web

Like the general population, younger Americans appear to show more trust in traditional media sources than they do in blogs, though they use a variety of sources.

According to survey research from the Knight Foundation, 66% of high school students in the U.S. get news from Google and Yahoo (which largely aggregate news articles from traditional media outlets), 45% from national TV Web sites, and 34% from local TV or newspaper sites. But 32% identified blogs as a news source, which is significantly higher than the 21% who said national newspaper sites.

But use and trust don’t appear to go hand in hand. While blog readership may be as high as some other media platforms, very few young Americans find blogs trustworthy. While 45% of students say TV provides accurate news, followed by newspapers (23%), just 10% found blogs reliable. 6