Cable television news viewed as most credible

Cable television news viewed as most credible

Ibelema, Mineabere

Alabama residents rated cable television news as the most trustworthy of all news services. Minor differences were found in ratings of local and network news and local and national newspapers.

Credibility in the news media has been declining steadily over the years, along with readership and ratings. Although the news media have never had particularly high credibility,1 and measures of credibility have varied depending on question wording and the particular aspect of credibility measured,2 the decline has become of increasing concern to media ethicists and professionals. The concern became especially salient in 1985 when a survey commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors indicated a high level of public discontent with various aspects of journalism.3 Most other surveys since then, including Johnson & Kaye’s comprehensive study in 1998, have confirmed that the discontent is enduring and deepening. Among the complaints are that increasingly intense competition results in frequent errors of fact and grammar; that newspapers are not respectful of or knowledgeable about their communities; that journalists’ biases influence what stories are covered and how; that there is an undue proportion of bad news, and that sensational stories are covered to sell papers.4 These complaints contribute to questions about the believability of news.5 The complaints summarized above refer to perceived characteristics of the message (content) and the messenger (journalists). But studies show also that perceptions of credibility are different for each medium and vary with audience locale, demographics and psychographics.6 Thus, the experience of a given group of people, especially in relations with others, would be a major factor in their perception of media credibility.

Audience Characteristics and Trust in Media The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship that audience characteristics have on perceptions of the news media. That audience characteristics are related to perception of media credibility is well known, with research examining such diverse factors as age, sex, income, education, rural/urban residency, media use habits and attitude toward specific issues. Socioeconomic status, in particular, is an important variable7 used to explain readers’ perceptions of newspapers. Overall, upper-scale people, especially those in urban settings, are more skeptical of the media.8

But a number of other audience characteristics also influence responses to the media, albeit to a lesser degree. Age has been identified as a variable factor; people in the middle range (25-44) of adulthood tend to find the media least trustworthy, whereas older adults find them most credible, followed by younger (18-24) adults.9 Gender differences are also a factor, with women generally finding the media more trustworthy than do men.10 Regarding locale, people in rural/small communities are more likely to find the media credible, but less likely to read newspapers. They are likely to be heavier TV viewers, although they report not finding much of themselves in TV programs.11 They are also in greater accord with their newspaper editors on professional standards than are metropolitan residents with their metro-newspaper editors.12

Newspaper/TV Credibility

Studies have shown that, in general, television has higher credibility than do newspapers. Roper surveys credit this trend to as early as 1961, when television news was still relatively in its infancy.13 The findings have held up over the years, although inconsistencies and variations have emerged when specific components of credibility are examined and when audience is broken down by demography and psychography.

In general, television’s visual realism and affective appeal appear to be its decisive advantage. People are more likely to believe what they see. And attractive people, who, as reporters and anchors, are much more on display on television than in newspapers, are more persuasive.14 It has been found, also, that fluency in news delivery enhanced perception of all elements of credibility, and pleasantness enhanced perception of competence.15

A 1976 study of a student audience in the Detroit area16 showed that many more believed TV to be more credible (43 percent) than believed the reverse (23 percent). Another 1976 study of students17 found that if newspaper coverage conflicts with TV coverage, many more would believe television (76 percent of the sample) than would believe newspapers (24 percent). The pattern held through the 1980s18 and late into the 1990s.19 A national survey in 1998 by the Roper organization, for instance, found a 54 percent “net trust” in local TV compared to 40 percent for local newspapers, net trust being the difference between the percentage of respondents who “can trust” and those who “cannot trust” the respective media.20 The same survey found, however, that by this measure, there is little difference in credibility between local newspapers and the nightly network news (43 percent).

However, newspapers are judged to be more credible on some specific dimensions of credibility, especially expertise, which, along with trustworthiness, is said to be the most important element of credibility.21 It has also been shown that the more complex the subject, the more credible newspapers are judged.22 Still, people who have strong to moderate interest in specialized news, such as on science and medicine, are more likely to mention television as their primary source.23

Regarding demographic and psychographic factors, surveys have shown that men, urban dwellers and people of higher socio-economic status tend to find the newspapers more credible, whereas women, rural dwellers and people of lower socio-economic status tend to find TV more credible.’ However, at least one study25 found no difference between men and women. Gaziano and McGrath found also that the less informed people are the more likely they are to rate TV more credible. Another study found that news sources, who are society’s elite,26 relied considerably more on newspapers than on TV for their news.27 Still, overall, TV has maintained a higher credibility rating than newspapers, the gap being wider when respondents compare the various media rather than comment on each medium, per se.

National/Local Media Credibility

An important element of media credibility is perceived relevance of the content,28 and a major public complaint is that journalists don’t seem to understand their community or to care about the people.29 In general, the local media are perceived as covering their communities with greater relevance and sensitivity.31 Network news has been shown to carry more negative news than does local TV news.31 And the closer a newspaper is to the location of violent incidents, the more informative and less sensational its coverage.32

It would seem, therefore, that local news media would enjoy overwhelmingly higher credibility than the national. The evidence bears out this assertion to a substantial degree. The 1998 Roper survey33 showed that CNN and Headline News had the highest net credibility (59 percent). However, local TV news (54 percent) surpassed the nightly network news (43 percent), and local newspapers (40 percent) are just slightly more credible than national newspapers (37 percent).

Also, people who have moderate to high interest in specialized news, such as news about medicine, business, and science, strongly prefer local media over national media.34 Although this study does not distinguish between locally originated TV programs and network fares, the vast difference between local and national newspapers suggests that the difference applies also to television. Whether the preference is a matter of convenience, as at least one study35 has suggested, is not known.

On the factor of relevance, studies show that local news is the most widely read newspaper content. Griswold and Moore36 found that 74 percent of a newspaper’s readers reported reading the local news “always;” whereas,just 45 percent said the same of national news and 34 percent of international news. This would suggest a preference for, and therefore higher credibility of, local media. Also, studies that found a connection between local media use and community involvement37 would suggest higher credibility for local than for national media.


Despite some inconsistencies in the literature, this review suggests the following hypotheses:


The participants would give higher trust ratings to local media than to national media. Hypothesis #1 is suggested by the findings that news coverage by the local media is judged higher on sensitivity and relevance and is therefore perceived to be more credible.38 However, the factor of perceived expertise may be to the advantage of the national media.


The participants would give higher trust ratings to television than to newspapers. Hypothesis #2 is suggested by the thrust of the literature regarding the national public. There is no basis for differentiating Alabamians on this factor, except, perhaps, that Alabama is more rural and lower in socio-economic status than average, and such communities tend to judge TV more credible.39


a) Men would rate newspapers higher than women, while b) women would rate broadcast media higher than men. Hypothesis #3 is suggested by Gaziano and McGrath’s40 study which found that men tend to find newspapers more credible; whereas, women tend to find TV more credible.


a) Young participants will rate broadcast news higher, while b) older participants will rate newspapers higher. Hypothesis #4 is based on the assumption that young participants are more active users of electronic media than are older participants.


a) Lower income participants will rate broadcast news as more trustworthy, b) while upper income participants will rate newspapers higher. Hypothesis #5 is based on Gaziano & McGrath’s findings regarding socio-economic status.41


a) African-American participants will rate broadcast news higher, b) white participants will rate newspapers higher, and, c) overall, African-Americans will rate media lower than whites. Hypothesis #6 is based on the assumption that blacks in Alabama are more likely to come from lower income groups; thus the results should conform to Gaziano and McGrath’s findings regarding socioeconomic status, Le, people of higher socio-economic status tend to find the newspapers more credible, whereas people of lower socio-economic status tend to find TV more credible.42 Hypothesis 6 is suggested by the general perception that African Americans perceive themselves as having a negative image in the media and are, therefore, more likely to rate the media lower on credibility.43


The participants were 400 residents (margin of error, +/- 4.9 percent) of Alabama who were interviewed in a stratified random sample between May 36, 1999.

Participants were selected through the following procedure. First, a sampling formula was developed by dividing the state into six geographical regions and percentages were assigned to each area based upon voter participation in the 1996 presidential election. Voter participation was chosen as a stratification basis to ensure that the stratification represented a distribution of adult respondents who would have a basis of viewing news as relevant information.

Second, 8,000 names matched with telephone numbers were randomly selected in clusters of twenty names, and these were apportioned into the six geographical areas; the universe for the sample was all residential telephone numbers in the state of Alabama.

Third, names were randomly selected from that list, contacted by telephone, and asked if they would participate in the survey. If they refused, a second number was called (alternately the one immediately above or below the original number selected). Participants were monitored to maintain gender balance in each region. A total of 503 respondents were contacted by phone, of which 400 agreed to participate in the survey (response rate, 79.5 percent).

The questionnaire consisted of 21 questions about state and local issues. As part of those local issues, the respondents were asked to rate (1) news on television networks, such as ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, (2) their local television news, (3) national newspapers such as USA Today and The New York Times, (4) cable TV networks such as CNN and (5) their local daily newspaper. Respondents were asked provide a numerical rating representing the extent to which they trusted each media source to give them accurate and fair information on issues. The numerical scale for the rating ranged from 1-to-7, with 1 representing “you don’t trust their information at all” and 7 representing that “you totally trust them to give you accurate information.” Unsure were assigned the midpoint of “4” on this scale. (See Table 1)

Age was measured by asking the following question: “Which of the following groups best represents your age, (1) 18-34, (2) 35 to 49, (3) 50 to 65, or (4) over 65?”

Two analyses were conducted on the resulting data. Hypothesis 1 was tested with a one-way ANOVA which compared ratings between local television, newspapers and radio; this approach allowed for testing of differences in means between the different media. Hypothesis 2 was tested by using two techniques, a t-test that compared the combined ratings for all three television sources (network, cable, local) as compared to both newspaper sources (national, local) and a one-way ANOVA that compared all five of the sources. Hypotheses 3, 4, 5 and 6 were tested with a Chi-Square analysis comparing results by the four age groups; the Chi-Square analysis allowed for analysis of the distribution of the responses by the demographic subgroups. For the ChiSquare analysis, ratings of 1-to-3 were collapsed into a single “negative” category, while ratings of 5-to-7 were collapsed into a single “positive” category. (See Table 2)


Hypothesis 1 was not supported (F = 2.37). There was no significant difference between the ratings of local TV news and network TV news (t =39). There was also no significant difference between the ratings of local newspapers and national newspapers (t = 1.54).

Hypothesis 2 was supported (t = 7.88, p

Hypothesis 3a was not supported. No significant associations by gender were identified on ratings for either local (X^sup 2^1,2 = 2.11) or national (X^sup 2^1,2 = 2.85) newspapers.

Hypothesis 3b was supported. The Chi-Square analysis identified a significant association by gender on credibility ratings for cable news (X^sup 2^1,2 = 6.11, p

Hypothesis 4a was supported, while Hypothesis 4b was not supported. The Chi-Square analysis identified a significant association by age on ratings for national newspapers (X^sup 2^1,8 = 18.96, p

Hypothesis 5a was supported in terms of radio news, but was not supported on the ratings of the other electronic media; Hypothesis 5b was not supported.

The Chi-Square analysis identified a significant association by income (X^sup 2^1,8 = 16.95, p

Hypothesis 6a was supported, while Hypothesis 6b and 6c were not supported. In fact, Hypothesis 5b resulted in an inverse finding. The Chi-Square analysis identified a significant association by race on ratings for local television news (X^sup 2^1,6 = 13.25, p


Three significant conclusions can be drawn from the data in this study. First, this study found that television received higher trust ratings than newspapers, but the differences were primarily attributed to higher ratings for cable TV news. In other instances, the differences in ratings for television and newspapers were relatively minor. At least two explanations are possible. First, the similarity between the ratings may reflect a homogenization of news information. Some media companies own both television stations and newspapers, both forms of news have increased their Internet presence and television stations and newspapers often quote each other as news sources. Sometimes, for example, a local television station and a local newspaper will share expenses on some investigative pieces, with the television station providing brief coverage on the nightly news and the newspaper providing more in-depth coverage the next morning. As such actions become more frequent, it may be harder to distinguish between the credibility of the various media sources. Cable TV news might stand out in this glut of information, if only for its ubiquitous ability to provide information constantly.

Another explanation may have to do with the measuring technique used in this study. Comparative credibility measures are affected by how questions are phrased,44 and some of the other studies have relied on forced-choice measures in which the respondents chose only the most credible medium. That measuring approach automatically eliminates respondent evaluations of equal credibility. Further, given the pervasiveness of television in modern society, a forced-choice question likely biases responses toward highly visible media. Thus, forcedchoice measurements may be assessing preference rather than trust or credibility. Because this study used respondents’ evaluations of each of the media sources, the potential for equalization of the ratings was increased. The second major finding was the lack of significant differences between ratings for national and local news sources. This finding is of particular significance, given that the national media tend to be perceived as less understanding, less caring and less sensitive in their news coverage.45 Although research suggests differently,46 it is possible that the local and national media were indistinguishable in the tone and slant of their coverage. If so, that would imply that the approach of the local and national news has grown more similar since the 1980s, when the previous research was conducted and media consumers may be making fewer distinctions about the local-versus-national source of information. In a time when more local news outlets (television stations and newspapers) are owned by national chains, the distinction between national and local news sources may be blurring.

The third major finding in this study concerned the demographic differences in the responses, particularly as they related to age. In general, the elderly tend to find the media most credible.47 That young Alabamians found the national media substantially more trustworthy than did elderly Alabamians suggests a generational factor that may be related to different experiences and therefore perceptions of the state’s image. The elderly were of age at the time of the civil rights crisis when national media coverage of Alabama was most intense and negative. The elderly, therefore, maybe subject to attitude extremity regarding the state’s media image, and that may explain the comparatively low credibility rating of the national media.

That African-Americans in Alabama rate the media higher than do whites is also unexpected and significant, but that result may also be related to the state’s past history with the media. In general, African Americans see the media in a negative light because they perceive themselves as misrepresented in media.48 This is the opposite view from the positive ratings they gave media in the survey. Considering the history of the state, in which the media were a major impetus in the civil rights movement, African-Americans in Alabama might actually consider the press more of an ally than a foe. Further research is needed to clarify these factors.


1. Arlene Notoro-Morgan, “Credibility: A Trust That Was Never There,” American Editor (October 1997): 14-16.

2. Thomas J. Johnson and Barbara K. Kaye, “Cruising Is Believing?: Comparing Internet and Traditional Sources of Media Credibility,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 75 (summer 1998): 325-340.

3. Kristen McGrath and Cecilie Gaziano, “Dimensions of Media Credibility: Highlights of the 1985 ASNE Survey,” Newspaper Research Journal 7 (winter 1986): 55-67.

4. Deborah Howell, “Why Newspaper Credibility Has Been Dropping,” American Editor (January 1999): 4-17; McGrath and Gaziano, “Dimensions of Media Credibility.”

5. Johnson and Kaye, “Sources of Media Credibility.”

6. Judee K. Burgoon, Michael Burgoon, and D.B. Buller, “Newspaper Image: Dimensions and Relation to Demographics, Satisfaction,” Journalism Quarterly 63 (winter 1986): 771-781.

7. Cecilie Gaziano and K. McGrath, “Segments of the Public Most Critical of Newspapers’ Credibility: A Psychographic Analysis,” Newspaper Research Journal 8 (summer 1987): 1-17.

8. Burgoon, Burgoon, and Butler, “Newspaper Image;” Gaziano and McGrath, “Psychographic Analysis.”

9. Burgoon, Burgoon, and Butler, “Newspaper Image.” 10. Ibid.

11. Phillip J. Tichenor et al., “Community Pluralism and Perceptions of Television Content,” Journalism Quarterly 54 (summer 1977): 254-261.

12. George Albert Gladney, “Newspaper Excellence: How Editors of Small & Large Papers Judge Quality,” Newspaper Research Journal 11 (spring 1990): 58-72; George Albert Gladney, “How Editors and Readers Rank and Rate the Importance of Eighteen Traditional Standards of Newspaper Excellence,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 73 (summer 1996): 319-331.

13. John D. Abel and Michael 0. Wirth, “Newspaper vs. TV Credibility for Local News,” Journalism Quarterly 54 (summer 1977): 371-375.

14. William McGuire, “The Nature of Attitudes and Attitude Change,” In G. Lindzey and E. Aronson, eds., The Handbook of Social Psychology, 2nd ed. (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1969), 177-199.

15. Judee K. Burgoon, “Attributes of the Newscaster’s Voice as Predictors of His Credibility,” Journalism Quarterly 55 (summer 1978): 276-281.

16. Abel and Wirth, “Credibility for Local News.”

17. Raymond S. H. Lee, “Credibility of Newspaper and TV News,” Journalism Quarterly 55 (summer 1978): 282-287.

18. Tony Rimmer and David Weaver, “Different Questions, Different Answers? Media Use and Media Credibility,” Journalism Quarterly 64 (spring 1987): 28-36,44.

19. Frank Newport and Lydia Saad, “A Matter of Trust,” American Journalism Review, (July/ August 1998): 30-33.

20. Ibid.

21. Michael H. Birnbaum and Steven E. Stegner, “Judge’s Point of View,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37 January 1997): 48-74.

22. Shelly Chaiken and Alice Eagly, “Communication Modality as a Determinant of Message Persuasiveness And Message Comprehensibility,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34 (October 1976): 605-614.

23. Herbert H. Howard, Edward Blick, and Jan. P. Quarles, “Media Choices for Specialized News,” Journalism Quarterly 64 (summer-autumn 1987): 620-623.

24. Gaziano and McGrath, Psychographic Analysis,” summary. 25. Lee, “Credibility of Newspaper and TV news.”

26. Brian L. Massey, “Civic Journalism and Nonelite Sourcing: Making Routine Newswork of Community Connectedness,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 75 (summer 1998): 394407.

27. Michael W. Singletary and Richard J. Lipsky, “Accuracy in Local TV News,” Journalism Quarterly 54 (summer 1977): 362-368.

28. Keith R. Stamm, Arthur.G. Emig, and Michael B. Hesse, “The Contribution of Local Media to Community Involvement,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 56 (spring 1997): 97-107. 29. Cecilie Gaziano, “News People’s Ideology and the Credibility Debate,” Newspaper Research Journal 8 (winter 1987): 1-18; Howell, “Why Newspaper Credibility Has Been Dropping.”

30. Charles T. Salmon and Jung-Sook Lee, “Perceptions of Newspaper Fairness: a Structural Approach,” Journalism Quarterly 60 (winter 1983): 663-670.

31. Gerard C. Stone, Barbara W. Hartung, and Dwight Jensen, “Local TV News and the Goodbad Dyad,” Journalism Quarterly 64 (spring 1987): 37-42.

32. Mitchell J. Shapiro and Wenmouth Williams, Jr., “Civil Disturbance in Miami: Proximity and Conflict in Newspaper Coverage,” Newspaper Research Journal 6 (summer 1984): 61-69.

33. Newport and Saad, “A Matter of Trust.”

34. Howard, Blick, and Quarles, “Media Choices for Specialized News.”

35. William J. McEwen and Donald J. Hempel, “How Information Needs and Effort Affect Channel Choice,” Journalism Quarterly 54 (spring 1977): 149-154.

36. William F. Griswold Jr. and Roy L. Moore, “Factors Affecting Readership of News and Advertising in a Small Daily Newspaper,” Newspaper Research Journal 10 (spring 1989): 55-66.

37. Eric W. Rothenbuhler et al., “Communication, Community Attachment, and Involvement,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 73 (summer 1996): 445-466.

38. Griswold and Moore, “Factors Affecting Readership;” Newport and Saad, “A Matter of Trust; “Shapiro and Williams, “Proximity and Conflict in Newspaper Coverage;” Stone, Hartung, and Jensen, “Good-bad Dyad.”

39. Burgoon, “Attributes of the Newscaster s Voice;” Gaziano and McGrath, “Psychographic Analysis.”

40. Gaziano and McGrath, “Psychographic Analysis.” 41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. Jannette L. Dates and William Barlow, eds., Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1990); C.C. Wilson II and F. Gutierrez, Minorities and Media: Diversity and the End of Mass Communication (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1985).

44. Rimmer and Weaver, “Media Use and Media Credibility.”

45. Gaziano, “Credibility Debate;” Howell, “Why Newspaper Credibility Has Been Dropping;” Salmon and Lee,”Perceptions of Newspaper Fairness.”

46. Salmon and Lee, “Perceptions of Newspaper Fairness;” Shapiro and Williams, “Proximity and Conflict in Newspaper Coverage.”

47. Burgoon, Burgoon, and Butler, “Newspaper Image.”

48. Dates and Barlow, African Americans in the Mass Media; Wilson and Gutierrez, Minorities and Media.

By Mineabere Ibelema and Larry Powell

Ibelema is an assistant professor and Powell is an associate professor in the

Communications Studies Department of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Winter 2001

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