June 11, 2000

Internet Sapping Broadcast News Audience

Section V: Media Credibility

While television news viewership has fallen off in recent years, credibility ratings for the major TV news outlets have remained relatively stable. As was the case in 1998 and 1996, CNN is rated the most believable TV news source. Roughly four-in-ten Americans who are able to rate it (39%) say they can believe all or most of what they see and hear on CNN.

The three major broadcast networks are rated about equally in terms of believability: Roughly three-in-ten say they believe most of what they see on ABC, NBC and CBS. Ratings for the networks are basically unchanged from 1998 and 1996. The network news magazines are rated slightly better than the networks themselves. One-third (34%) give 60 Minutes a high rating for believability, and 32% give the same high rating to NBC’s Dateline. The ratings of local TV are similar to the networks, with 33% saying they can believe all or most of what they see on their local newscasts.

Fewer Americans are able to rate the newer all news cable channels, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel. Nonetheless, among those able to rate them, they rank just slightly below the broadcast networks. Less than three-in-ten (28%) give MSNBC high marks for believability; 26% give the Fox News Channel a high rating. C-SPAN received high believability ratings from 33% of those able to rate it.

Similarly, public broadcasting outlets are less well-known than the large commercial networks, but their credibility ratings are comparable among those who can rate them. Ratings for National Public Radio have improved somewhat since 1998. One-quarter give NPR the highest rating for believability, compared to 19% two years ago. Roughly one-in-five (21%) rate NPR’s All Things Considered as highly believable. The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is rated highly by roughly one-quarter of the public — 24% say they can believe all or most of what they hear on this show.

Wall Street Journal Stands Out

Compared to television news outlets, print sources are generally seen as less believable, with one exception. The Wall Street Journal is viewed as the most highly credible news source among all the traditional outlets included in the poll. Among those able to rate, fully 41% say they can believe all or most of what they read in the Wall Street Journal.

Time Magazine comes in a distant second on the list of print sources included in the poll. Three-in-ten (29%) give Time a high rating for believability. Newsweek gets a high rating from 24%.

One-in-four Americans give their local daily newspaper high marks for believability. This is down somewhat from 29% in 1998. USA Today is highly rated by 23%, unchanged from two years ago.

Ratings for the Associated Press have risen moderately in recent years. Today 21% of those able to rate the wire service give it high marks for believability, up from 18% in 1998 and 16% in 1996.

Entertainment and tabloid outlets such as People and the National Enquirer receive the lowest ratings overall. Only 10% of those able to rate People say they can believe all or most of what they read in the magazine. Even fewer (4%) give high ratings to the Enquirer.

Online Sites Beat Parent Organizations

This year, for the first time, the Center asked online users to rate the believability of several popular Internet news sites.1 Interestingly, ratings for the online sites of the major national news organizations are substantially higher than ratings for the news organizations themselves.

For example, among online users who could rate, fully 54% give CNN.com a high believability rating, while only 40% give the same rating to CNN. With ABC News, 44% of online users rate the network’s website highly believable, compared with 29% who give the same rating to the organization itself.

A similar pattern can be seen for NBC News vs. MSNBC.com, CBS News vs. CBSNews.com, USA Today vs. USAToday.com., and the Fox News Channel vs. FoxNews.com. In each case, online users give the website a higher rating than the parent news organization. The New York Times’ website is rated highly by 42% of online users, but the newspaper itself was not rated on credibility.

Believability ratings for Internet-only sites vary widely. The two best-known sites receive the highest ratings: Roughly three-in-ten online users say they can believe all or most of what they read on Yahoo (29%) and Netscape (30%). AOL’s News Channel gets a high rating from 23% of the online users able to rate it.

Less well-known are the popular search engines Lycos.com, Go Network and About.com Among those able to rate them, just under one-in-five give Lycos and Go Network high believability ratings. About.com received high marks from 13% of online users.

The poll includes two technology-oriented news sites — CNET.com and ZDNet.com. Each received high believability ratings from roughly one-quarter of users familiar with them.

Two online magazines, Salon and Slate, received the lowest marks overall. Fewer than one-in-five online users were able to rate these sites. Salon received high ratings for credibility from 12% of those who rated it, while Slate got high marks from only 4%.

  1. Based on a separate survey of 308 Internet users conducted June 1-6, 2000.