Enhancing the Credibility of News Online


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Oicenth Phang
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Last updated April, 2002

he Online News Association’s Digital Journalism Credibility Study compiled a list of clear, specific and commonsense strategies for enhancing the credibility of online news sites. The strategies are based on the recommendations of more than 2,300 survey respondents and 50 digital journalists who participated in the study.

Hire journalists

It’s easier to hire journalist and teach them how to use the new medium than it is to teach technicians writing skills and news judgment. It’s easier to hire journalist and teach them how to use the new medium than it is to teach technicians writing skills and news judgment.

“I think when newspaper’s first started building Web sites, a lot more technical people were hired, but editors realized that journalism skills and news judgment were more important than HTML skills,” said Alexandra Egan, editor of Omaha.com.

An informal ONA survey of 56 online newspapers and 16 online televisions stations found that the great majority online news workers do in fact have traditional journalistic training and experience, indicating that online news organizations have already taken steps to improve the quality of their content.

The next step, according to the report, is for online news organizations to let the readers know that they have made that commitment.

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Train them

Major online news organizations, such as the NYT.com and MSNBC.com, have developed “boot-camps” for their newsroom employees.

Though it appears redundant to re-train media professionals, the study found it was much more efficient to inform new employees in particular of the standards and practices of the organization and familiarizing them with using multimedia and digital systems at the start.

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Establish Ethics and Standards and Implement Them

Though journalism already has a wide array of codes of ethics, the ONA study said the online medium is unique enough to warrant its own set of rules.

Unique issues that online policies must address include:
Advertising (such as pop-up ads) that accompany editorial content
Conflict-of-interest issues with editorials/reviews and links to purchasing the product
Corrections policies
Accuracy of news partner/ link content
Disclosure of relationships with partners, advertisers and sponsors

There is disagreement over the whether they should be general, specific to individual online news organizations or both. Some online news organizations, like NYT.com, USAToday.com and ChicagoTribune.com have adapted the codes of ethics of there parent companies.

Bottom line, it’s necessary to develop basic ideals to for new media journalists to aspire to if credibility is to be built both inside and outside the news room, said Jay Black, ethics professor at the University of South Florida.

“It would be a healthy exercise to develop a set of at least the ideal expectations and standards by which you want to hold journalists…the statement of principles that you want people to believe in,” black said.

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Interact with readers

Make use of the medium. After all, interactivity is the hallmark of the Internet.

The research shows that online readers – especially those who spend a lot of time on the Web, find immediate and direct relation between the public and the media very valuable.

Should journalists provide e-mail bylines? That depends. There is the argument that journalist would spend all their time responding to e-mail. Another option that would encourage interactivity is to have set times where journalists are available for comment in chat rooms.

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Be Up Front With Corrections

It is very tempting to make quick corrections online…after all, who would know? But not being up front with corrections and changes jeopardizes credibility, said Frank Sennet, owner of slipup.com, which tracks correction policies of online news sites.

“We have to come clean about it if we want to make people believe us,” Sennet said.

Make corrections in a timely manner
Include prominent link to corrections
Don’t whitewash a mistake… maintain the a public record of the story with the mistake in it.
Run the correction where it can be seen and explain, not excuse the error.

* One example of a corrections policy that Sennet lauds is Salon.com (see links) Back To Top

When it’s and ad, say it’s an ad

More than two-thirds of the readers surveyed in the ONA study say they are not worried about being duped by and advertising message disguised as a news story.

Nevertheless, it is important to clearly identify advertisement as such. Avoid mixing ads with content, placement where it would impact news judgment, or with editorial.

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Online News Association's Credibility Survey


Special Report:
Online ethics 2000