Credibility of news on the World Wide Web

Credibility can get sticky on the Web

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S. Camille Broadway.
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Last updated: April 18, 2000

Nature of Web creates credibility issues

In a traditional media environment, money is the most frequent barrier to becoming a news provider. Printing presses and paper cost money. Video cameras and editing bays cost money. Transmitters and sound boards cost money. Employees cost money.

Relatively speaking, ready cash isn't a real barrier to online publishing. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in a 1997 opinion, "Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer."

[Traffic on Web travelling faster and
faster]

The ease of publishing online means more and more people are turning to the Web as a place to disseminate their message. News-oriented Web sites now outnumber all the U.S. newspapers, television stations and news radio stations combined, according to Carol Sanger, Federated Department Stores vice president for corporate communications and external affairs.

Who, indeed, should you trust on the World Wide Web?

"The thing I worry most about is that people will have all the information in the world, (but) they won't have any way of evaluating whether it's true or false, A or B, even if it's true, how to put it in proper perspective," said President Clinton in a speech April 13, 2000, to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Sites are multiplying faster than the proverbial rabbits, and Americans are turning to the Web for news in greater and greater numbers -- especially younger Americans.

According to a national survey released April 10, 2000, by the Round Table Group:

  • 68 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Internet users sa y they are more likely to check the Internet than a newspaper to answer a question;
  • 67 percent are more likely to consult the Net than the TV;
  • Nearly 70 percent of Americans aged 14 to 24 live in households that use the Internet for information, compared to 46 percent of households nationwide.

"Traditional media have a right to feel fearful of these rapidly changing demographics," said Russ Rosenzweig, CEO of the Round Table Group. "The changeover is happening much more rapidly that anyone predicted."

With a greater dependence on online news, the credibility of that news becomes more important. With thousands of sites screaming for our attention, credibility may determine how many people visit the site and if they return to the site for information. Traffic to a site in turn determines how much that site can charge advertisers and ultimately the site's economic viability.

This online project outlines many of the credibility issues facing news sites on the Web:

  • "Advertorial": The e-commerce side increasingly creeps into the content side of the Web.
  • The "Drudge Factor": Is it more important on the Web to be fast or to be accurate? How does the pressure of being first with the most shape the quality of online news?
  • New medium, new problems: Just when you think it's safe to surf -- the new medium poses unique ethical issues that may have an impact on credibility.
  • Old media vs. new media: Which media are more credible with Internet users? The jury is still out.
  • Access: How credibility issues affect the online reporter's access to sources of news and information.
  • Quick fixes: Content, design, and policy suggestions to aid credibility.

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