Online News Credibility: An Examination of the Perceptions of Newspaper Journalists

Authors

  • William P. Cassidy

    1. Department of Communication
      Northern Illinois University
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    • William P. Cassidy is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. His major research interests are online journalism, influences on news media content, and media coverage of the AIDS epidemic.

      Address: Department of Communication, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL 60115-2854, USA


Abstract

This study examines print and online daily newspaper journalists’ perceptions of the credibility of Internet news information, as well as the influence of several factors—most notably, professional role conceptions—on those perceptions. Credibility was measured as a multidimensional construct. The results of a survey of U.S. journalists (N = 655) show that Internet news information was viewed as moderately credible overall and that online newspaper journalists rated Internet news information as significantly more credible than did print newspaper journalists. Hierarchical regression analyses reveal that Internet reliance was a strong positive predictor of credibility. Two professional role conceptions also emerged as significant predictors. The populist mobilizer role conception was a significant positive predictor of online news credibility, while the adversarial role conception was a significant negative predictor. Demographic characteristics of print and online daily newspaper journalists did not influence their perceptions of online news credibility.

Introduction

The Internet continues to evolve into a major news source. On a typical day, more than 50 million Americans obtain news from the Web (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2006). The Newspaper Association of American (NAA, 2006) reports that 112 million people visited online news sites during the first quarter of 2006. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of Americans say the Internet is their main source of news, while 44% obtain news from online sources at least once a week (Pew Research Center, 2005). In addition, more news sites are becoming profitable, and news organizations are investing more money in online journalism (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2006).

However, questions have been raised about the credibility of online news (e.g., Brill, 2001; Ketterer, 1998; Lasica, 1998; Online News Association, 2002). These concerns are significant in that journalism is built on credibility (France, 1999). If the public does not believe or trust the press, they are less likely to pay attention to it (Gaziano, 1988). Johnson and Kaye (1998) suggest that lack of trust in information obtained from the Internet could keep it from becoming an even more important and influential news source.

A number of studies have examined audience perceptions of the credibility of Internet information (e.g., Flanagin & Metzger, 2000; Johnson & Kaye, 1998; Kiousis, 2001). However, less scholarly attention has been paid to journalists’ perceptions of online news credibility, even though most journalists regularly use Internet information in their work (Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes, & Wilhoit, 2003). According to one study, nearly two-thirds (64%) of journalists sometimes or often use news from the Web in their reporting (EURO RSCG Magnet & Columbia University Survey of the Media, 2005). Furthermore, more than 90% of journalists say that the Internet has had a substantial impact on how they perform their jobs (Middleberg/Ross Media Survey, 2002). Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001) believe that the Internet has prompted a shift in the role of journalists in the communication process. Journalists in the new millennium are no longer deciding what information the public should know but instead are helping audiences make sense of it. Similarly, a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (2004) contends that the increasing availability of news and information from both legitimate and illegitimate sources “makes the demand for the journalist as referee, watchdog, and interpreter all the greater” (n.p.).

This study examines how print and online daily newspaper journalists perceive the credibility of online news information, as well as the influence of several factors—most notably the professional role conceptions of journalists—on those perceptions. Daily newspapers were chosen because they are the largest employers of journalists (Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes, & Wilhoit, 2006). The data for this project were gathered via a nationwide survey. The goal of the study is to provide insight into how journalists are reshaping their “gatekeeping” roles in the online environment.

Theoretical Framework

In keeping with its focus on the gatekeeping role of journalists, this study adopts a sociology of news framework, which documents the influence of many factors, including media routines and professional norms, on news media content (e.g., Breed, 1955; Fishman, 1980; Soloski, 1989; Tuchman, 1978).

Early studies of gatekeeping theory, most notably the classic “Mr. Gates” study by David Manning White (1950), were important in the development of the sociology of news framework (Reese & Ballinger, 2001). Gatekeeping theory, at its most basic level, is the idea that there is selectivity in the process of determining what news stories are published or broadcast. A major point of the theory, as developed by psychologist Kurt Lewin, is that there are forces that can either inhibit or aid the flow of news items through the “gates” (Shoemaker, 1996).

Early gatekeeping studies (e.g., Manning White, 1950; Snider, 1967) focused on the decisions of individual journalists. However, subsequent research notes that the work of journalists and the gatekeeping process is also influenced by other levels of forces, such as the professional routines of journalists and the influence of the news organization (Ettema & Whitney, 1987). Shoemaker and Reese (1996) define routine level forces as the “patterned, routinized, repeated practices and forms that media workers use to do their jobs” (p. 105), adding that routines are responsible for much of the news content in the mass media. Routines establish a framework and boundaries for the behavior of journalists, and thus play an important role in determining what information makes it through the gatekeeping decision process (Breed, 1955; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Soloski, 1989).

Professional role conceptions, which Weaver and Wilhoit (1996) refer to as the “core belief system[s]” of journalists, are significantly influenced by routine forces (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). Through the sociology of news framework, the professional role conceptions of journalists can be viewed as their ideas about what potential news items should make it through the gatekeeping process (Shoemaker, Eicholz, Kim, & Wrigley, 2001).

Professional Roles of Journalists

Research into journalists’ beliefs regarding their roles in news gathering began with the work of Johnstone, Slawski, and Bowman (1976), who found that most journalists were pluralistic in their outlooks. Some journalists saw themselves as occupying a “neutral” role; these journalists felt they should adhere to norms of objectivity and report accurate, factual, and verifiable information. Neutral journalists thought it most important to stay away from stories where information could not be verified, get information to the public as quickly as possible, report news that was of interest to a wide audience, and provide entertainment and relaxation. However, others believed it was their responsibility to play a more participatory role and actively dig for the “real” story. These journalists felt it their duty to investigate claims and statements made by the government, give analysis and interpretation of complex problems, discuss national policy, and help develop the intellectual and cultural interests of the public.

Overall, however, the majority of journalists felt that elements of both perspectives were important. Only 8% were predominantly participant and 10% predominantly neutral in their outlooks. Thirty-five percent of journalists had balanced views, while 25% were moderately neutral and 21% moderately participant in their role conceptions.

Weaver and Wilhoit (1986) continued this line of research and repeated many of the questions asked by Johnstone and his colleagues. They found that journalists fell into three professional role conceptions: (1) interpretive; (2) disseminator; and (3) adversarial. Almost 60% rated high in the interpretive role, while nearly half did so in the disseminator role. The adversarial role conception was less important, with only 17% of journalists scoring high on it. Overall, most journalists viewed their professional roles as a combination of interpreter and disseminator.

Ten years later, Weaver and Wilhoit (1996) found similar results. This time their analyses revealed four role conceptions: (1) interpretive/investigative; (2) disseminator; (3) adversarial; and (4) populist mobilizer. Those scoring high in the interpretive/investigative role conception felt it important to investigate government claims, analyze and interpret complex problems, and discuss public policy in a timely manner. The disseminator role conception has two dimensions: getting information quickly to the public and avoiding stories with unverifiable information. The adversarial role conception consisted of constantly being skeptical of both government and business interests. The populist mobilizer role conception meshed together four dimensions: developing the cultural interests of the public, providing entertainment, setting the political agenda, and allowing ordinary people to express their views.

The interpretive/investigative role conception was rated highest, with nearly 63% of journalists rating it as very important. Slightly more than half (51%) of journalists rated the disseminator role conception as very important. The adversarial role was once again less important, with only 18% of respondents rating it as important, and the populist mobilizer role was rated as very important by only 6% of respondents. Overall, the study found that most journalists saw themselves as a combination of two, and sometimes three, role conceptions. For example, 33% of respondents scored high in both the interpretive/investigative and disseminator role conceptions.

In the most recent study of journalists’ professional role conceptions (Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes, & Wilhoit, 2006), the interpretive role was once again rated highest, with nearly 63% of respondents rating it as extremely important. The disseminator role conception declined in importance overall, but a majority of journalists still felt it extremely important to get information to the public as quickly as possible and avoid reporting stories with unverified facts. The adversarial and populist mobilizer role conceptions remained less important to journalists. However, the percentage of journalists rating the populist mobilizer role conception as extremely important increased to 10%. Despite these changes, the overall results once again showed that journalists are often aligned with more than one role conception.

Weaver and colleagues (2006) also included a separate sample of 100 online journalists in their study. The interpretive role conception was also rated highest by this group, with more than half of the participants feeling its dimensions were extremely important. However, the online journalists rated the populist mobilizer role conception as less important than did traditional journalists. This result is somewhat surprising, given that online journalists are claimed to be more receptive to audience concerns than traditional journalists (Boczkowski, 2004).

The findings of Weaver, et al. (2006) are somewhat similar to those of a study of the professional role conceptions of print and online newspaper journalists by Cassidy (2005), who found that both groups rated the interpretive/investigative and disseminator role conceptions as more important than the adversarial and populist mobilizer role conceptions. Print newspaper journalists, however, felt that the interpretive/investigative role conception was significantly more important than did online newspaper journalists, while the online group rated the dimensions of the disseminator role conception as significantly more important. No significant differences were found for the adversarial and populist mobilizer role conceptions.

Media Credibility

For the past two decades, the public’s overall trust in the press has declined (Project For Excellence in Journalism, 2006). The Pew Research Center (2005) reports that 60% of Americans think the media are politically biased in their reporting, whereas only 42% felt this way in 1986 (Pew Research Center, 2002). Similarly, the percentage of those who believe most of what they read in their daily newspaper dropped from 84% in 1985 to 59% in 2006 (Pew Research Center, 2006a). In 2002, only 35% said media reporting is generally accurate, down from 55% in 1985 (Pew Research Center, 2002).

The believability of several major news organizations has also declined since the mid-1980s. For example, in 2002, only 65% of Americans surveyed rated ABC news as highly believable, while 83% did so in 1985. The results were similar for NBC news and CBS news. In addition, believability for daily newspapers declined from 80% in 1985 to 59% in 2002 and from 81% for television news in 1985 to 65% in 2002 (Pew Research Center, 2002).

Nonetheless, a February 2006 study suggests that the public’s trust in the media may be on the rise. Fifty-nine percent of Americans reported having a favorable view of the press, up from 43% in December 2004 (Pew Research Center, 2006a). Similarly, 42% of Americans gave the media high marks for coverage of the 2006 elections, up from 33% for the 2004 elections (Pew Research Center, 2006b).

Regarding the credibility of online information, research has generally found that the public rates online news similarly to other media. Johnson and Kaye (1998) surveyed politically-interested Internet users to examine whether they viewed Internet publications to be as credible as their traditionally delivered counterparts. They found that online newspapers, news magazines, and politically-oriented websites were judged at least somewhat credible by more than two-thirds of respondents. Moreover, online newspapers and online candidate literature were judged as significantly more credible than their traditional counterparts.

Residents of Austin, Texas rated newspapers highest in credibility for news information, followed by Internet news and television news in a study by Kiousis (2001) (other media were not examined). Flanagin and Metzger (2000), in a survey comprised largely of U.S. undergraduate college students, found that newspapers were perceived as more credible than television, radio, the Internet, and magazines for news. However, the differences across the four media were not significant and—like the results of Johnson and Kaye (1998) and Kiousis (2001)—suggested that overall, the mass media are only considered moderately credible.

The Online News Association (2002) surveyed a nationwide panel of U.S. Internet users and reported that online news was rated about as credible as that of traditional media sources. For example, 78% said that cable television websites were credible. National newspaper and local newspaper websites were rated as credible by 67% and 63% of respondents, respectively. Cable television news ranked first, with 82.5% finding it credible. However, 13% of U.S. Internet users felt that online news was their most trusted news source.

Another national study found that the credibility of news sites is an important concern for Internet users (Consumer Reports WebWatch, 2005). Sixty-seven percent said that the news site they visited most often was believable most or all of the time. Interestingly, this was nearly identical to perceptions of the believability of daily newspapers (67%) and national television news (68%).

At the same time, several studies have shown that Internet users prefer established journalistic entities. In an experimental study, Ognianova (1998) found that news sites associated with a newspaper or television network were perceived as more credible than those sites not associated with such an organization. Respondents in another study rated the online sites of major news organizations higher in believability than Web-only sites (Pew Research Center, 2000b). Those seeking news regarding the 2000 U.S. elections were much more likely to visit the websites of major news organizations than Web-only publications and political sites (Pew Research Center, 2000a). Almost 79% of U.S. Internet users say that most or all of the information posted on established news sites, such as nytimes.com, is accurate (Center for the Digital Future, 2005).

While many politicians and critics have expressed dissatisfaction with the mass media, journalists have tended to be less self-critical (Beam, 2004). More than 60% of U.S. journalists in a nationwide survey opined that their news organization was doing a very good job and improving journalistic quality (Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes, & Wilhoit, 2003). In contrast, about half of the journalists in another study said that the profession was headed in the wrong direction, and that there were too many factual errors in news reports (Pew Research Center, 2004). Of particular interest to this study, more than one-third of local and national print journalists rated credibility as the leading problem facing the journalism profession (Pew Research Center, 2004).

Journalists’ Perceptions of Online News Credibility

The Online News Association (2002) reports that 69% of journalists believed that online news sites did not meet the same standards as more traditional sources. Journalists also tended to rate online news sites lower in credibility than did the public (Lasica, 2002). The most commonly expressed concern is related to the high speed with which stories can be posted online. The competition to be the first to report breaking news stories is, according to Lasica (2002), heightened by the Internet and makes errors more common. The majority of journalists surveyed in a Pew Research Center (2004) study said that the Internet has increased the amount of incorrect information in new stories. Similarly, Arant and Anderson (2001) found that nearly half of online editors reported that less time was spent verifying information before a story was posted.

Ruggiero (2004) contends that the professional socialization and ideology of journalists initially inhibited them from accepting the Internet as a credible news source, because its emergence impacted their ability to control the standards of the profession. Breed (1955), in his landmark study, documented the strong influence of peers and senior colleagues on the norms and values of journalistic practice, which socialize journalists to perform their jobs in a similar manner. However, as Deuze (2001) notes, online journalism differs from traditional types of journalism in some norms and practices. For example, online journalists must decide which formats are best for reporting a story, make allowances for interactivity, and assess ways of connecting related stories to each other via hyperlinks. Deuze (2001) believes these technological factors challenge traditional journalistic ways of storytelling. Furthermore, the Internet allows users to act as their own gatekeepers (Singer, 1998). Because of such challenges, traditional journalists have expressed resistance to journalism as practiced online because it is deviant and could potentially alter the norms of the profession as they know it (Ruggiero, 2004). This resistance is often framed in terms of debates about journalistic quality and what constitutes “real” journalism (Deuze, 2005).

However, Deuze (2005) also notes that “journalism continually reinvents itself” (p. 447) by incorporating new norms and values into these debates over quality. Indeed, recent research indicates that traditional journalists may be becoming more accepting of online journalism and incorporating some of its values into their professional role conceptions. The majority of respondents in a Pew Research Center (2004) study said that the Internet has improved journalism, with many citing its benefit as a research tool. Additionally, a majority gave the websites of major news organizations high grades (A or B).

Other Potential Influences on Credibility

Given the exploratory nature of this endeavor, the level of influence exerted by several other factors examined in studies of Internet users, such as demographics and level of reliance, were also tested here. No previous studies have examined the influence of these characteristics on journalists’ perceptions of credibility.

Earlier research found that the majority of Internet users are highly educated males with substantial incomes (Stempel, Hargrove, & Bernt, 2000). However, more recent studies suggest that because the Internet is becoming more demographically mainstreamed, demographics exert less influence on the news audience as regards Internet credibility levels (Johnson & Kaye, 2002).

Reliance on the Internet has been shown to influence audience perceptions of Internet credibility (Flanagin & Metzger, 2000). In contrast, Johnson and Kaye (2002) found that reliance on the Internet did not significantly influence politically-interested Internet users’ perceptions of online information credibility. Based on the aforementioned opinions of online journalists in the Pew Research Center (2004) study, it seems logical that whether or not one is a member of the online staff of a daily newspaper would also exert influence on one’s perceptions of credibility.

Research Questions

The literature discussed above suggests the following research questions:

RQ1: How do U.S. daily print and online newspaper journalists rate online news in terms of credibility?

RQ2: Are there significant differences between U.S. daily print and online newspaper journalists’ perceptions of online news credibility?

RQ3: Do the professional role conceptions of U.S. daily newspaper journalists influence their perceptions of online news credibility?

RQ4: To what extent do demographics and reliance on the Internet to perform their jobs influence U.S. daily newspaper journalists’ perceptions of online news credibility?

Methodology

As in Weaver and Wilhoit (1996), the sample for this study was drawn from the population of journalists working for English-language mainstream general interest daily newspapers in the U.S., and was designed to over-represent online journalists. Daily newspapers were chosen because they are the largest employers of journalists (Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes, & Wilhoit, 2006). More than 54,000 journalists work for daily newspapers (American Society of Newspaper Editors, 2006). In addition, the online newspaper audience is growing at an impressive rate. Unique visitors to online newspaper sites grew more than 20% during 2005 (Cyberjournalist.net, 2006) and newspaper sites averaged 56 million unique visits monthly during the first quarter of 2006 (Newspaper Association of America, 2006).

Journalists were defined by Weaver and Wilhoit (1996) as “those who [have] responsibility for the preparation or transmission of news stories or other information—all full-time reporters, writers, correspondents, columnists, photojournalists, news people and editors” (p. 248). However, this definition does not take online journalists into account, as it was articulated before many news organizations had established a significant online presence. Despite this, the essence of the definition can still be applied to online journalists. As noted earlier, Deuze (2001) believes that online journalism is distinct from other types of journalism because its technological component is an important factor in how online journalists perform their jobs. Allowing for interactivity, hypertextuality, and deciding which formats best serve a story certainly qualify online journalists as “having responsibility for the preparation or transmission of news stories” (Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996, p. 248).

Accordingly, this study defines an online newspaper journalist as one who meets Weaver and Wilhoit’s (1996) criteria necessary to be defined as a journalist, and whose job primarily entails working on the online edition of a daily newspaper with the job title editor, producer, or reporter (McAdams, 2000).1 Similarly, a print newspaper journalist is defined as one who meets Weaver and Wilhoit’s (1996) criteria necessary to be defined as a journalist, and whose job primarily entails working on the print edition of a daily newspaper.

The sample for this study was designed to provide a systematic probability sample of newspapers proportionate to the size of daily circulation2 and was drawn from the 1,191 daily newspapers listed as of February 2003 in Newslink, a major database listing of online newspapers (Massey & Levy, 1999). Print circulation figures were used to gather the sample, because research suggests that familiarity with the print edition is what leads readers to the online version (Singer, 2006). Given that the main goal of this study was to compare the perceptions of online and print newspaper journalists, and due to the small size of the online staff at many newspapers (Singer, 2006), online newspaper journalists were over-sampled.

Although there is no published directory of online newspaper staff members, the majority of online news sites post on their websites listings with email contact information of both print and online staff (Singer, 2001). The websites of each newspaper used in this study were visited. If no staff list was available, the newspaper was contacted to see if one could be provided. When no list was made available, stories on the newspaper’s website were randomly selected to determine if contact information for the reporter was available.3

Data Collection Procedures

The data reported here are taken from a larger study (Cassidy, 2003); other data from that study have been reported elsewhere (Cassidy, 2005, 2006). A Web-based survey was used, on the grounds that it can be an effective method for gathering information from populations who have Web access and email addresses (Dillman, 2000).

Invitations to participate in the survey were sent to 2,050 print newspaper journalists and 1,280 online newspaper journalists via email between July 15, 2003 and August 25, 2003.4 From these 3,330 invitations, 325 from the print and 119 from the online sample were undeliverable, for a total of 444 (13.3%). Fifty-one newspaper journalists (37 print and 14 online) declined to participate.

A total of 2,835 email messages (1,688 to the print sample and 1,147 to the online sample) containing the survey URL were sent within three days of sending the survey invitations. Two reminder messages, both containing the survey URL, were sent one and two weeks, respectively, after the initial mailing. A total of 655 (456 print and 199 online) usable responses were received, for a 23.1% response rate. Responses were obtained from 271 newspapers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Table 1 provides a demographic profile of both groups. Although the online newspaper journalists tended to be a bit younger than their print counterparts, the differences were not statistically significant. The distribution of the sample corresponds favorably to other studies of U.S. journalists in terms of demographics, regional representation, and newspaper circulation size (American Society of Newspaper Editors, 2002, 2006; Voakes 1997; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996).5

Table 1.  Demographic profile of respondents
VariablePercentage
Print (n = 456)Online (n = 199)
  1. Note: There were no statistically significant differences between the two groups.

Gender
 Male61.0%61.0%
 Female39.039.0
Age
 18-249.05.4
 25-3427.138.4
 35-4424.125.9
 45-5426.920.5
 55-6411.88.9
65+1.1.9
Education
 High School.5.9
 Some College or Associate’s Degree6.96.3
Bachelor’s Degree72.477.5
 Master’s Degree18.313.5
 Doctorate1.91.8
Race/Ethnicity
 White88.290.0
 Black or African-American3.03.6
 Hispanic or Latino/a3.61.9
 Asian or Asian-American2.22.7
 Native American or Indian.60
Other2.41.8

Assessing Credibility

Credibility is most often measured as a multidimensional construct (Johnson & Kaye, 2002). Believability, fairness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness are four measures that have been utilized in studies assessing credibility perceptions (Gaziano & McGrath, 1986, Johnson & Kaye, 1998, 2002; Meyer, 1988; Newhagen & Mass, 1989). Respondents in this study were asked four variants of the following question: “When gathering information needed in your day-to-day job, how believable (fair, accurate, comprehensive) do you find news information from Internet sources to be?” The responses were measured using a 7-point Likert-type scale (1 = not at all fair, believable, fair, accurate, or comprehensive, 7 = extremely believable, fair, accurate, or comprehensive). Scores on the four credibility measures were summed into a credibility index. Cronbach’s alpha for the credibility index was .87

Assessing the Influence of Professional Role Conceptions

Following the same method utilized in Cassidy (2005), the professional role conceptions of the respondents were determined from their answers to 13 questions taken from Weaver and Wilhoit (1996), asking how important they “think a number of things the media do or try to do today are” (p. 263). Weaver and Wilhoit (1996) used factor analysis to determine four role conception categories. Levels of importance for each of the 13 statements were measured in the present study using a 7-point Likert-type scale, where 1 = not really important, and 7 = extremely important. To assess the influence of professional role conceptions on credibility perceptions, four summative indices were created.

The interpretive/investigative index was comprised of each of the scores from the following three questions asking how important it is that the news media: (1) provide analysis and/or interpretation of complex problems; (2) investigate claims and/or statements made by the government; and (3) discuss national policy while it is still being developed. Cronbach’s alpha for this variable was .76 for print newspaper journalists and .71 for online newspaper journalists.

The disseminator index summed the scores from two questions which ask how important it is that the news media: (1) get information to the public quickly and (2) stay away from stories where factual content cannot be verified. Cronbach’s alpha for this variable was .30 for the print group and .28 for the online group, well below recommended values. Therefore, this index was discarded and the two dimensions of the disseminator role conception were analyzed individually.

The adversarial index tallied the scores from assessments of two questions asking how important it is that the news media: (1) be an adversary of public officials by being constantly skeptical of their actions and (2) be an adversary of businesses by being constantly skeptical of their actions. Cronbach’s alpha for this variable was .95 for the print group and .98 for the online group.

The populist mobilizer variable summed each of the scores from four questions which ask how important it is that the news media: (1) provide entertainment and/or relaxation; (2) develop intellectual and/or cultural interests of the public; (3) set the political agenda; and (4) give ordinary people a chance to express their views of public affairs. Cronbach’s alpha for this variable was .60 for the print group and .67 for the online group.

Other Dependent Measures

To measure reliance on the Internet, respondents were asked, “Currently, how much do you rely on news information from Internet sources in your day-to-day job?” Levels of reliance were measured using a 7-point Likert-type scale (1 = do not rely on at all; 7 = heavily rely on). The study also asked respondents to report if they were affiliated with the print or online staff of their newspaper as well as standard demographic questions such as gender, age, ethnicity, education, and political beliefs.

Results

RQ1 asks how credible daily newspaper journalists rate online news. Table 2 shows that the respondents find online news only moderately credible. The mean credibility index score was 17.15 (out of a possible 28, SD = 3.90). The accuracy of online news was rated highest with a mean of 4.44 (SD = 1.09), followed by believability with a mean of 4.41 (SD = 1.12), comprehensiveness with a mean of 4.24 (SD = 1.32), and fairness with a mean of 4.06 (SD = 1.10).

Table 2.  Means of credibility index dimensions and credibility index overall (N = 655)
DimensionMSD
Believability4.411.12
Fairness4.061.10
Accuracy4.441.09
Comprehensiveness4.241.32
Credibility Index17.153.90

RQ2 asks if there are significant differences between print and online newspaper journalists in their perceptions of online news credibility. Table 3 shows that online newspaper journalists rate online news significantly more credible than do print newspaper journalists. The mean credibility index score for the print group was 16.57 (out of a possible 28, SD = 3.80). For the online group, the mean credibility score was 19.05 (SD = 3.80). The difference is significant (t=−6.01, df = 653, p < .001).

Table 3.  Means of credibility index dimensions and credibility index overall for print and online newspaper journalists
DimensionPrint (n = 456)SDOnline (n = 199)SDp
Believability4.271.104.871.05<.001
Fairness3.931.074.471.09<.001
Accuracy4.311.094.871.00<.001
Compre-hensiveness4.051.294.831.24<.001
Credibility Index16.573.8019.053.80<.001

Online newspaper journalists also rated each of the dimensions of the credibility index significantly higher than did print newspaper journalists. The mean score for believability among print newspaper journalists was 4.27 (SD = 1.10), on a 7-point scale, compared to 4.87 (SD = 1.05) for online newspapers journalists (t=−5.07, df = 653, p < .001). The results were similar for fairness, with the print group scoring 3.93 (SD = 1.07) and the online group 4.47 (SD=1.09) (t=−4.60, df = 653, p < .001).

For accuracy the mean score for print newspaper journalists was 4.31 (SD = 1.09), while the mean for online newspaper journalists was 4.87 (SD = 1.00) (t=−4.87, df = 653, p < .001). For the print group the mean score for comprehensiveness was 4.05 (SD = 1.29), compared to 4.83 (SD = 1.24) for the online group (t =5.59, df = 653, p < .001).

To answer RQ3 and RQ4, hierarchical regression analyses were performed, with the credibility index serving as the dependent variable. Such analyses allow a researcher to determine the proportion of variance attributable to an independent variable after accounting for the variance of independent variables already in the equation (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2001). The variables were entered in blocks. Demographics were entered first, followed by staff affiliation and reliance. Since this study was particularly interested in the influence of professional role conceptions on perceptions of online news credibility, that block of variables was entered last, making the analyses very conservative tests of professional role conception influence.

RQ3 asks if the professional role conceptions of daily newspaper journalists exert influence on their perceptions of online news credibility. As shown in Table 4, the populist mobilizer role conception was a significant positive predictor of online news credibility (beta = .13, p= .003). In addition, the adversarial role conception was a significant negative predictor of online news credibility (beta = -.11, p = .009). The interpretive/investigative and disseminator role conceptions were not significant predictors of online news credibility, however.

Table 4.  Hierarchical regression analysis of predictors of online news credibility (N = 655)
VariableBlock1Block2Block3Block4
  1. Note: ** p < .01, *** p < .001.

Demographics
 Gender (female).08.09.05.02
 Age (less than 35).06.03.02.03
 Education.01.01.01.02
 Minority−.08−.07−.07−.07
 Political Views (Liberal).04.03.03.04
 Online Staff.29***.19***.17***
 Internet Reliance.55***.54***
Role Conceptions
 Interpretive/Investigative−.04
 Getting information to the public quickly (Disseminator)−.01
 Avoiding unverifiable facts (Disseminator).06
 Adversarial−.11**
 Populist Mobilizer.13**
 R-square for block.021.082***.288***.021**
 Cumulative R-square.021.103***.391***.412***

RQ4 asks whether such independent variables as demographics, reliance on the Internet, and staff affiliation influence daily newspaper journalists’ perceptions of online news credibility. Daily newspaper journalists’ reliance on the Internet in their day-to-day jobs emerged as a strong positive predictor of online news credibility (beta = .54, p < .001). Not surprisingly, given the results for RQ2, working for the online staff of a daily newspaper was also a significant positive predictor of online news credibility (beta=.17, p < .001). None of the demographic variables (gender, age, education, race/ethnicity, political views) exerted a significant influence on perceptions of online news credibility (Table 4).

Discussion

This study surveyed daily newspaper journalists to assess their perceptions of online news credibility; a close examination of the results provides insight into the changing role of journalists as gatekeepers in the online environment as well as their evolving acceptance of the Internet as a source for news information. The results show that online news is perceived as moderately credible overall. These results are in line with the results of studies examining the public’s credibility perceptions (Flanagin & Metzger, 2000; Johnson & Kaye, 1998; Kiousis, 2001). Thus, while earlier research by the Online News Association (2002) found that journalists perceived online news to be less credible than the public did, the results here indicate that that may no longer be the case.

Of course, comparing the online news credibility ratings of newspapers and the public was not the purpose of this study. However, it bears noting that Johnson and Kaye (2002) found that politically-interested Internet users ranked online sources higher in credibility than they did in an earlier study (Johnson & Kaye, 1998). It is possible that the same is occurring with journalists. Certainly, over the course of the last decade, use of the Internet as a tool for newsgathering by journalists has increased significantly (EURO RSCG Magnet & Columbia University Survey of the Media, 2005; Garrison, 2003; Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes, & Wilhoit, 2003). The increased familiarity of journalists with online news information sources could be having an impact on their perceptions of online news credibility. The present results, coupled with those of a recent Pew Research Center (2004) study, suggest that this is the case.

The results also lend some support to Deuze’s (2005) contention that traditional journalists may be incorporating some of the norms and values of online journalism into their professional ideology. At the same time, journalists perceive the information found on the website of an established journalistic entity to be more credible. This is consistent with Outing’s (2000, n.p.) suggestion that websites associated with major traditional news organizations are relying on the reputation of their “old media parent.”

However, despite these seeming advances, the results also indicate that Internet news information is far from universally accepted by newspaper journalists as a credible source, particularly among print newspaper journalists. Researchers (Boczkowski, 2004; Deuze, 2005; Singer, 2006) have suggested that the inherent conflict between traditional conceptions of journalistic gatekeeping and the Internet being a medium where anyone can publish information likely plays a role in these perceptions. As Deuze (2005) writes, “new media technologies challenge one of the most fundamental ‘truths’ in journalism, namely, the professional journalist is the one who determines what publics see, hear and read around the world” (p. 451). Similarly, Boczkowski suggests that “the idea that editorial work is about mediating between events and consumer…has influenced print’s disregard for reader-authored content” (p. 176).

Print newspaper journalists rated online journalism news information significantly lower in credibility than did online newspaper journalists. This can be interpreted as an indication that print newspaper journalists are still a bit skeptical of online journalism and its norms and practices. In a study examining convergence efforts at four U.S. newspapers, Singer (2004) found that print newspaper journalists tended to be more resistant to convergence because they have concerns about the values and norms of online and television journalism.

Relatedly, the present results suggest that online newspaper journalists are farther along in the process of re-conceptualizing their ideas about gatekeeping in the online environment. For example, in a recent study examining online newspaper coverage of the 2004 U.S. elections, Singer (2006) reports that online editors offered users increased opportunities to contribute information and ideas, which she believes is a move “toward a partnership between users and journalists to construct meaningful information” (p. 275). Boczkowski (2004) also claims users have a much stronger impact and effect on news in the online environment, and that online journalists are more likely to think user-generated content is newsworthy.

Such analyses are directly related to the populist mobilizer role conception, which found increased support in the most recent study by Weaver and colleagues (2006) and emerged as a significant positive predictor of online news credibility here (beta = .13, p= .003). This role conception first emerged in Weaver and Wilhoit’s 1996 study, where it was identified as a potential “harbinger of change in the field” of journalism (p. 140). The populist mobilizer role conception incorporates some of the values of the public journalism movement, such as the importance of giving ordinary citizens the chance to express their views on public affairs.

While their ratings were significantly higher than the print group, online newspaper journalists nonetheless only perceived online news information as moderately credible overall. Boczkowski (2004) suggests, as does the sociology of newswork literature, that this may be in part because online newspaper journalists are associated with a “traditional” media entity: the print version of the newspaper. He reports that many online journalists also “exhibited an occupational identity that resembled the one of their print counterparts, as defined partly by a traditional gatekeeping function and a disregard for user-authored content” (p. 103).

The present results concerning the influence of professional role conceptions on credibility perceptions of online news reflect some of this ambivalence. The more prominent role conceptions—interpretive/investigative and disseminator—did not exert significant influence. However, both the populist mobilizer role conception and the adversarial role conception were significant predictors. The adversarial role conception was a negative predictor of online news credibility (beta =−.11, p= .009). Historically, American society has thought of journalists as being “watchdogs” and adversaries of government and big business. Therefore, this role conception can be considered a more traditional one, lending some credence to the view that more traditional journalists perceive online news as less credible.

Reliance was found to be a very strong positive predictor of online news credibility (beta = .54, p < .001). This is not surprising, given the results of previous research. However, the respondents do not, as a whole, rely heavily on news information from online sources in their day-to-day jobs (M = 4.36, out of a possible 7). Affiliation with the Web staff of a daily newspaper was also a significant predictor of online news credibility (beta = .17, p < .001), although not as influential as reliance. The impact of these two variables suggests that the differences between print and online newspaper journalists are more complex than a simple “us vs. them” dynamic in which norms, practices, and values conflict primarily on the basis of staff affiliation.

Limitations and Conclusion

The high level of non-response for this study is a limitation. Response rates for surveys in general have declined (Sheehan, 2001), and although the 23.1% response rate is similar to that in other studies of newspaper journalists (e.g., Arant & Anderson, 2001; Singer, Tharp, & Haruta, 1999), it is possible that non-respondents would differ from respondents in their assessments of the questions asked in this study.

The results are also limited by the sampling design. This study was designed to over-represent online newspaper journalists. Thirty percent of the respondents (n = 199) worked for the online editions of daily newspapers. A study using another sampling design might obtain different results. However, one could also argue that over-representing online newspaper journalists is justified given that this study looked at online news credibility and compared the differences between print and online newspaper journalists.

Nonetheless, the focus here on newspaper journalists can also be seen as a limitation. It is possible that journalists from other media perceive the credibility of online news information differently from those in this study. The findings of Singer (2004) suggest that this might be the case, in that print newspaper journalists tended to be more resistant to convergence than both online and television journalists in her study. Future studies should include other types of journalists.

Another potential limitation to this study is that online news information was treated as a single entity. It is likely that both print and online newspaper journalists would find certain news information highly credible—such as information reported on mainstream news sites—and information from other online sources, such as blogs, less credible. Nonetheless, significant overall differences between the two groups were found, which suggests that online newspaper journalists’ definition of what constitutes news is wider than that of print newspaper journalists (Boczkowski, 2004). Thus, these results can serve as a starting point for more specific examinations of the credibility of online news information. In particular, future research should examine various types of online news information.

Despite the above limitations, this study adds to knowledge of how professional journalists working for daily newspapers rate online news in terms of credibility. As noted above, the overall results indicate that journalists are beginning to perceive online news as more credible than they have in the past, and they are beginning to reshape their gatekeeping roles in reaction to the emergence of the Internet as a prominent news source.

Notes

  • 1

    McAdams (2000) interviewed online newspaper staff members and found that those holding the job titles of “editor” and “producer” made the types of journalistic decisions consistent with this study’s definition of a journalist.

  • 2

    Arant and Meyer (1997) argue that conducting a purely random sample of newspapers over-represents the readers of smaller newspapers and excludes many who read larger newspapers. Therefore, to best represent readers with the sampling design, this study, employing Arant and Meyer’s (1997) methods, took the September 2, 2002 weekday circulation figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation of the 1,191 dailies listed in Newslink and hypothetically “stacked” all the issues, for a total weekday circulation of 52,870,276. A random starting point was chosen, and after consulting studies to determine the print newspaper and online newspaper journalist population (American Society of Newspaper Editors, 2002; Arant & Anderson, 2001; McAdams, 200), a newspaper from the “stack” was pulled at every 25,790th copy for the print newspaper journalist sample and every 30,211th copy for the online newspaper journalist sample.

  • 3

    In all cases where this was necessary, the contact information for the reporter was provided. Arant and Meyer (1997) utilized this method in selecting a portion of the newspaper journalists sampled in their study. In the hopes of obtaining responses from online staff members of these papers, a generic email was sent to the organization asking for the message to be forwarded to the newspaper’s online staff.

  • 4

    When drawing the online sample, it became apparent that there was significant variation in the number of online staff members at newspapers. Earlier research made no distinction between journalistic online staffers and those in other types of positions. As a result, some newspapers, because they had small online journalistic staffs in relation to print circulation, were unable to provide the number of survey respondents accorded them in the sampling design. In addition, there were cases where a group of newspapers shared a single website manned by a small staff. Examples of this include suburban newspapers in the Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco metropolitan areas. As a result, the number in the online newspaper journalist sample was only 1,280.

  • 5

    For example, males comprised 61% and females 39% of respondents in this study, compared to 62% and 38% respectively in the latest American Society of Newspaper Editors (2006) census. Nearly 92.7% of the respondents in this study were college graduates, compared with 91.9% of newspaper journalists surveyed by Weaver and colleagues (2006). Minorities made up 11.4% of respondents, compared with 13.9% in the 2006 American Society of Newspaper Editors (2006) census. Weaver and colleagues (2006) found that 56.1% of newspaper journalists were between ages 25-44, while 54.3% of respondents here were between ages 25-44.

About the Author

  1. William P. Cassidy is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. His major research interests are online journalism, influences on news media content, and media coverage of the AIDS epidemic.Address: Department of Communication, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL 60115-2854, USA

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