March 30, 1999

Striking the Balance, Audience Interests, Business Pressures and Journalists’ Values

Section V. The News and The New Media

While the news media appreciate the utility of new technologies in their work, they are mixed in their views of the way journalism is practiced in these new mediums. The advent of online-only news sites and the proliferation of cable channels are given only lukewarm endorsements by the news media today, particularly among older members of the press and those in local news.

The ambivalence can be explained in part by the different news gathering techniques endorsed by the Internet news media. The most striking difference between the men and women working for Internet news outlets and those in mainstream news is the Internet media’s equivocation about neutrality. Journalists and executives in Internet news are divided 52%-to-48% over the importance of remaining neutral, but three-quarters of those in national and local news declare it to be a journalistic cornerstone.

“There’s an ever-growing tendency toward pack journalism as the Internet breaks down editorial barriers,” says a network television executive. “Traditional journalists will have to be much better editors, identifying news values and being discerning about those values.”

The Internet news media are also slightly more likely than are the national and local press to say that providing an interpretation to news is a core principle of their profession. Finally, only one-quarter of those in Internet news say that always avoiding the first person is a core principle of journalism, while 40% of the national news and 46% of the local news media agree.

The Net As a Tool

For the most part, the press feels good about the way new technologies have changed their profession. Roughly half of the news media say the emergence of the Internet has made journalism better. Not surprisingly, those in Internet news are even more positive about the impact of their medium on journalism.

The national and local news media alike have positive views of the Internet as a resource. Fifty-four percent of the national press say the emergence of the Internet has made journalism better; only 12% say it has made journalism worse. Among the local press, 47% say the Internet has made things better, 8% say worse. The local news media are also more likely than their national counterparts to say the Internet hasn’t made much of a difference (42% and 26%, respectively). Local news executives are among the least enthusiastic about the Internet — only 25% think it has made journalism better.

Use of the Internet is far more commonplace in newsrooms than living rooms: Over 90% of the press have direct access to the Internet at work; just half of the public goes online.

Younger journalists and those who work in online news have much more positive views of the Internet than do older members of the news media. Fully 70% of those between 18 and 34 think the Internet has made journalism better, compared to 53% of those 35-54 and 40% of those 55 and older. Over 80% of the online press say the Internet has improved journalism.

Mixed Reviews for Online News

The ability of newspapers and TV networks to establish their own websites is viewed as a positive development by 78% of national journalists and executives, 74% of the local news media and 89% of those in Internet news. Executives, news managers and staff are in agreement on this point.

This consensus, however, does not extend to online-only publications. The national and local news media are modestly positive about the emergence of online-only newspages and magazines: 61% and 51%, respectively say such developments have had a positive effect on journalism. Not surprisingly, the Internet press unanimously applauds the emergence of their field: 93% say it has had a positive effect.

The online and mainstream press also differ on the value of the public’s direct access to news via the Internet. Three-quarters of those in online news say that the public’s ability to bypass the news media and go directly to information sources is a good thing — only half of the national press and less than one-third of the local press express similar enthusiasm. The local print press is among the least likely to see the merit in eliminating the middle man — only 23% say this has been a good thing; 47% think it has been detrimental.

News Magazines

Journalists and media executives are somewhat ambivalent about the value of network TV news magazines. Among the national news media, 35% say these news magazines have had a positive effect on journalism; 41% say they have a negative effect. Those who work in local news are slightly more positive — 46% say TV news magazines are a plus, 30% say they are negative. Local television news folks stand out: 60% see news magazines as positive.

Americans think of these television magazines as news — not entertainment. Fully 81% of the public says 60 Minutes is news and 71% say the same of Dateline NBC.1 And, the public likes these programs. As many Americans watch television news magazines regularly (37%) as watch the national nightly network news (38%).2

Virtually all news media executives and journalists agree that tabloid television programs have hurt their profession. Roughly 85% of the national and local news media say shows like “Hard Copy” and “Inside Edition” have had a negative effect on journalism. Only 3%-4% say the effect has been positive. This sentiment is shared by the print and television news media. Interestingly, national news media executives are much more critical of tabloid TV than are their local counterparts. Fully 91% of national executives say tabloid shows have had a negative impact, compared to 72% of those in local markets.

Evaluations of tabloid TV are harsher today than they were 10 years ago. In 1989, 61% of the press thought these programs were having a negative effect, 15% said their effect was positive and 19% said they weren’t having much of an impact either way.

The public’s view of tabloid TV is more critical than it was in the past, as well. In 1989, by a ratio of 39%-to-28% Americans considered A Current Affair to be news, not entertainment. Now, most (56%) see it as entertainment; only one-in-four consider it news.9

Cable’s Growth

Most in the media say the increasing number of cable news outlets has had a positive effect on the profession. Those in national news are slightly more upbeat about this trend than those in local: 60% of the national press says the proliferation of cable outlets has been a good thing, 52% of locals agree.

When asked about the competition spawned by the increased number of cable outlets, the press is somewhat less positive. Roughly four-in-ten say competition and the increased number of cable news outlets has made journalism better, while one-third say this trend has made journalism worse.

At both the national and local levels, those in television news have a more positive view of this trend. More than half of national television journalists think this competition has made journalism better, compared to only 36% of national print journalists. Similarly, 45% of those who work in local television news say this has made things better; 35% of the local print press agree.

Among those who think competition and the increased number of cable outlets has hurt journalism, many say the need to compete has lowered journalistic standards. Those in the national media also think competition has fostered an interest in getting the story first rather than getting the story right. Many in local television news complain that, as a result of increased competition, ratings now take precedence over quality.

“In the race to beat the competition, facts are gotten wrong. Reporters act on innuendo and rumor,” says a business reporter for a local newspaper.

  1. "Fewer Favor Media Scrutiny of Political Leaders," The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press," March 1997.
  2. "Internet News Takes Off," The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press," June 1998.