Journalists distinguish between hard news and soft news (Curran,Douglas and Whannel, 1980). Soft news generally deals with the less serious news, the news about personalities or celebrities, human interest, or gossip. Hard news generally concerns the more serious news, news with such salient foci as those of high rank in government or other institutional hierarchies, news of events which impact on large numbers of people or news which possesses national or international significance for the past or future.
Given the amply documented dominance of TV as the
most popular source of news (McQuail, 1992, Robinson and Kohut, 1988, Bogart,
1989), the question obviously arises whether popularity is synonymous with
credibility. If it is, then it might be expected that TV news sources
are seen by the public as more credible than other news sources, e. g.,
newspapers, magazines, radio.
But news sources transmit information and, it might be expected, the kind of information they transmit, and the expertise with which they do it, should have some influence on a source's perceived credibility. One is more likely, for example, to turn to the industry newspaper, Daily Variety, to get accurate information about the entertainment industries than, say, to the New York Daily News. One is more likely to turn to the Wall Street Journal to get information about international business conglomerates than one is to turn to the National Enquirer for such information. One is more likely to turn to television shows such as Entertainment Tonight to get news about stars and their private doings than turn to PBS's Jim Lehrer News Hour.
In essence, one might suppose that viewers or readers have a sense of which news source is more or less likely to provide accurate information about a particular type of news. Indeed, Bogart (1989) reports that in a 1966 survey people did indeed turn to different media to find out information about different kinds of stories.
Surprisingly, however, although there has been voluminous research done on which news media (print or electronic) are the most or least reliable (MORI, 1985) and research done on which venues within each medium are more or less reliable in reporting the same story, (Roper, 1985), the present writer found no reported studies on whether news consumers differentially evaluate a specific news sources within and between news media, depending on the focus or kind of news story that is publicized.
This research lacunae may reflect the point of view of some scholars and researchers that "People make little distinction between what is expected from television and from major newspapers. In the public's mind, the same standards apply to both." (Immerwahr, Johnson and Doble, 1980, in Bogart, 1989, p 240). Yet, other research reveals that people do indeed distinguish between sources of news and expected accuracy. As reported by Robinson and Kohut (1988), two Roper surveys conducted for the Times-Mirror Company (one in 1959 and one in 1986) compared a national sample's response to questions concerning conflicting or different reports of the same story. In the 1959 survey, 32% said they would believe the newspaper while 29% chose television. In 1986, credibility ratings showed dramatic reversals. Only 21% chose newspapers while 55% chose television.
The same survey survey also showed that newspaper credibility dropped the most for high school educated respondents (from 62 to 29%) while the drop for the college educated was far less dramatic (from 69% to 41%). The fact that the less educated watch more TV and read fewer newspapers (Robinson and Kohut, 1988, Fischoff, Lotto and Agamyan, 1994) obviously suggests that people rate more credible that which they attend to most. However, according to the Robinson and Kohut data, people tended to choose news sources depending on regional relevance of news stories. For example, respondents chose local newspapers over local television when it came to local social or political issues.
While regional relevance of news may be a determinant
of choice of news sources, that there are virtually no studies which attempt
to assess perceived source accuracy or credibility as a function of the
hard or soft focus of the news story leaves unanswered certain important
Previous research has pursued what's been called “The Roper Issue” -- whether TV is more believable or credible as a news source than print (Robinson and Kohut, 1988). Given the decreasing readership of major metropolitan daily newspapers and the increasing monopoly of TV as the choice for getting news (McQuail, 1992), will television, regardless of story focus, be perceived as a more credible news source than newspapers? Furthermore, within the television universe of choice, will certain news venues such as the so-called network of record, CNN, be seen as more credible as a news source than the national or local television news stations?
Currently, a pressing concern is whether sensational or celebrity news is seen as more reliably reported by sources noted for soft, celebrity news than by sources noted for more hard, traditional news and will this be true within the arenas of print and electronic journalism? This issue is of some moment given that there has been a monumental increase in the extent to which mainstream news sources, both print and electronic, devote time to the business of and personalities in the entertainment industries.
In other words, if the press has blurred the boundaries between news which is soft and hard, tabloid and straight, will this result in no perceptible differences between them when judged in terms of credibility? Or, will old, traditional attitudes die hard and will the credibility ranking remain intact with the newspapers and networks of record assuming the position at the top of the media heap and the bottom still be the haven of the tabloid press and so-called soft news publications? Alternatively, will the public perception be compartmentalized such that the mainstream press will be perceived as the highly credible source for legitimate or hard news while the tabloid organs will be perceived as the credible sources for sensational or soft news? To answer these questions, the following field study was undertaken.
The respondents were not randomly selected; they were given the survey in the order they were encountered at various locales on the campus including the library, the cafeteria, walkways, hallways, etc. The use of diverse locations to gather respondents was done to avoid biasing the sample with like-minded congregants at any particular campus location. In order to provide maximum opportunity for respondents to be familiar with the various news media covered in the survey, only those who were English-speaking and were either born here or who were raised her from the age of 10 or earlier were included. More recent immigrants were not excluded from the survey but their responses were excluded from the present analysis.
The usable sample total of 426 was representative of the dominant sexual, racial/ethnic, age and educational groups in Southern California. The data collected on the second Wednesday was done as a check on the representativeness of the sample on the first Wednesday. Analyses revealed that there were neither significant nor substantive differences between the two samples, either in terms of demographic characteristics or dependent variable measure outcomes. Consequently, data from the two samples were combined for subsequent analyses.
The mean age of the sample was 28 years. For males and females respectively it was 28.1 and 27.9 and for respondents in each of the two Focus conditions (Politician and Film Star) it was 28.7, and 27.1 respectively. The mean ages respectively for Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Whites were 28.1, 26.7, 24.9 and 33.2. Analysis reveals that only for Whites was the average age significantly older than that of other racial/ethnic groups. No other demographic group differences were statistically significant.
A questionnaire was constructed which presented two hypothetical and identical sketchy news stories with the exception that in one story the focus was an unnamed nationally prominent politician (hard news) while in the other the anonymous focus person was a famous film star (soft news). Below is the wording of the news story and the instructions for responding:
Please imagine the following situation:
The nine news source items were chosen to represent, in a brief, easily answerable way, the spectrum of news sources from the four major media sources for both hard and soft news: newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. Since the Los Angeles Times is the only English-language major daily newspaper in Los Angeles, it was chosen to represent the major newspaper for this greater Los Angeles sample.
What is also clear is that, with one exception, (LTV), hard news source mean rankings decreased when the story focus shifted from hard news to soft news while soft news source ranking averages increased. This common fate that LTV shared with traditional soft news sources has been found elsewhere in that respondents have felt that, unlike NTV, LTV is less credible than major metropolitan daily newspapers (Robinson and Kohut, 1988).
While news story focus produced significant differences in credibility rankings, the differences were generally ones of magnitude rather than absolute ranking. Thus, for example, while the Los Angeles Times (LAT) was seen as less credible when it came to reporting soft news (film star ) than hard news (politician), regardless of news focus the LAT was still ranked more favorably than all other news sources. And, while the National Enquirer had a higher credibility ranking when it came to soft news as compared to hard news, it still ranked worst when compared to all other news sources on each of these story foci. As Table 1 indicates, comparable magnitude vs absolute ranking results obtained for all other news sources.
Regarding "the Roper issue," in the present study results indicate that, irrespective of story focus, the print news source, in the form of the major local metropolitan daily, the Los Angeles Times (LAT), is seen as substantially more credible than electronic news sources such as LTV or NTV but only marginally more credible than CNN. This is different than results found by previous researchers (e.g., Robinson and Kohut, 1988) and supports the present study's hypothesis that the kind of news rather than news per se is a strong determinant of source credibility and whether print or TV is more credible depends on the story being reported.
When we look at mean ranking as a function of News
Focus shown on Table 1, the results are as follows in the contest between
the LAT and CNN, the two most credible news sources.
For the LAT, the mean ranking for hard news was 2.83, while for CNN it was 2.9, a negligible difference. When it comes to soft news, the mean ranking of the LAT was 3.4 while for CNN it was 3.7, a somewhat larger difference. For both hard and soft news foci, however, the measure of dispersion, SD, was greater for CNN than it was for LAT, suggesting that there is greater variability in evaluating CNN credibility than there is in evaluating LAT credibility.
On the other hand, if we consider the proportion of times a news source received the rank of 1 or 2, as shown in Table 2, below, the dominance of the print medium in the form of the LAT changes somewhat. For the hard news focus, LAT had 53.7% of respondents ranking it between 1 and 2. For CNN, comparatively, 61.6% of the respondents assigned ranks of 1 or 2. For soft news focus, the LAT had 52.3% of respondents give it a 1-2 rank while CNN's proportion of 1-2 ranks was 46.6. Thus, CNN was seen as more credible in terms of modal ranking than the LAT for hard news but less credible than the LAT for soft news. And, while high ranking proportions declined only 1.45% for the LAT, it declined almost ten times that much, 14.92%, for CNN.
By way of contrast, if we look at the frequency of assigned ranks at the low end of news source credibility, i.e., ranks between 8 and 9, we have the following results:
Regarding the variable of Education, on 7 of 9 news sources the credibility rankings between those with college degrees (CD) and those without college degrees (WCD) were significantly different. WCD respondents tended to see soft news sources and LTV and Radio as more credible than CD respondents. The reverse was true for hard news sources. This is consistent with previous research which reported that education is negatively correlated with believability in soft news sources (Robinson and Kohut, 1988).
When it comes to the respondent Age variable, the only significant differences were found for NTV and People Magazine. As might be expected, those over 26 trended to find NTV as more credible, t= 3.04, 424, p < .01 and to find People Magazine less credible, t = 3.1, 424, p < .01, than those under 26. This was true regardless of news focus.
Finally, in the area of racial/ethnic differences, while there were some significant differences, the patterns for these differences were not readily interpretable or consistent.
2. The degree of credibility of a medium news source depends, to a significant extent, on the nature of the news focus. However...
3. Regardless of news focus, the major sources of news in the venues
of print, TV or radio remain relatively constant in their credibility rankings,
regardless of the particular news focus. Thus, even though some venues
are seen as specializing in celebrity or soft news (print or electronic
“tabloids”) when pitted against a more “reputable” news media, such as
CNN or local or network television news, they still don't have the respect
they might wish to. Therefore, in this era of celebrity-obsession,
when people want what they believe to be the most accurate news about celebrities
(vs., say, entertaining gossip), they still prefer the so-called "legitimate"
organs over the tabloid print (National Enquirer) or tabloid electronic
press such as Hard Copy.
One might expect, however, that given the blurring distinction between tabloid and straight news sources, this privileged position may change in the future. Alternatively, primacy may continue to dominate in terms of reputation of a news source regardless of whether or not reality would suggest otherwise. The National Enquirer is a case in point. According to comments made on several televised panel discussions presented under the auspices of the Columbia School of Journalism, the National Enquirer has recently cultivated a reputation for accurate investigative journalism, albeit in areas that are considered soft (e.g., the O.J. Simpson murder case) This favorable view, however, may be confined to members of the press rather than to the public at large. Reputations, it seems, die hard.
4. CNN as a news source has vaulted into a high prestige position in terms of credibility since 1988 when Robinson and Kohut opined that the public's tendency to group it and USA Today in the company of such prestigious and serious news sources as The New York Times and network news shows, was "something of a puzzle" (p. 186). Considering that CNN is a cable station with penetration into only approximately 5 million homes domestically, its high ranking in the present study attests to the enhanced reputation it has garnered since the Persian Gulf Crisis despite its relatively limited home viewership. Of course, its availability and stature internationally and visibility in such public arenas as airline terminals and CNN’s contracted feeds to independent TV stations nationwide in times of domestic or international crisis has increased its viewership dramatically beyond sheer numbers of cable subscribers.
Curran, J. Douglas, A, & Whannel, G. (1980). The political economy of human interest stories, in A. Smith (Ed)., Newspapers and democracy, (pp. 288-316), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fischoff, S., Lotto, J. and Agamyan, R. (1994, August). TV Addiction: Hypothetical construct or semantic fiction. APA Convention, Los Angeles.
The Gallup Organization (1987), The People, Press, and Politics, Times-Mirror.
Immerwahr, John, Johnson, Gene, & Doble, John (1980). The Speaker and the Listener: A Public Perspective on Freedom of Expression. New York: Public Agenda Foundation.
McQuail, D. (1992). Media performance: Mass communication and the public interest. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
MORI Research Inc., (1985). Newspaper Credibility: Building Reader Trust, The American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Robinson, M.J., & Kohut, A. (1988). Believability and the press. Public Opinion Quarterly, 52, 174-189.
Roper, Burns W./The Roper Organization (1986). Public attitudes toward television and other media in a time of change. New York: The Television Information Office.
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