Local news source opinions of their newspapers

Local news source opinions of their newspapers

Bergen, Lori

This study examines the opinions of local newspaper sources by asking them to evaluate both the stories for which they served as sources and the local newspapers where the stories appeared. Sources are generally pleased, finding fault with sins of omission rather than commission.

How does the experience of being a news source affect the evaluation that people make of the media? How much more – or less – tolerant are news sources when evaluating controversial journalistic practices? What is the effect on these evaluations of a good personal experience versus a bad personal experience with the media?

Many people who have been sources for news stories come away feeling less than satisfied with the final story. For example, some sources may feel that their position was misrepresented or portrayed inaccurately, that the wrong emphasis was placed on some aspect of the story, or that their privacy was invaded. Others may feel satisfied with the portrayal of their position or the portrayal of their role in a news event. Might those evaluations affect the opinions about media credibility that sources hold?

This study examined opinions of local newspaper sources by asking them to evaluate both the stories for which they served as sources and the local newspapers where the stories appeared. In addition, these news sources were asked to evaluate certain investigative reporting techniques and the roles of the news media in general.

While it is possible that people who have been regular news sources may be more tolerant of media practices because they will have first-hand experience with the shortcomings and strengths of reporters, it also may be that a direct personal experience with being a source will lead to an even more critical evaluation of journalists and their news gathering techniques.

Related studies

Most of the studies on news sources don’t directly address the issue of how news sources regard journalistic roles and practices as compared to the more general public. Instead, the studies of news sources tend to analyze who is being relied upon in terms of age, gender, race, official vs. non-official status, or amount of power, for example. There are some studies of public attitudes toward the news media that are specifically about media credibility. Many of these (up to the mid-1980s) are discussed in a working paper published by the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University in New York in 1986 entitled The Media and The People: Americans’ Experience with the News Media: A Fifty-Year Review by D. Charles Whitney.1

Although it is difficult to summarize the many different findings from a variety of studies reviewed in this paper, Whitney writes:

Recently, several studies have suggested what might be an obvious point that people’s attitudes toward the media depend upon their experiences with the media, particularly where the ‘experience’ involves more than passive reading, watching or listening.2

Whitney cites a 1980 Gallup poll that found “those who feel that the press has been inaccurate in treating news items relating to their own lives are more likely to favor curbs on the press than are those who feel the facts were dealt with accurately.”3

Whitney also cites a 1985 Gannett Center survey that found that those with more frequent and more favorable contacts with news media tend to be more favorable in opinions about them, and those with more frequent and less satisfactory contacts tend to be among their most intense critics.

Whitney reviews a study by Sharon Dunwoody and Byron Scott4 about the role of scientists as sources. They found that the more contact scientists had with science reporters, the more critical they became of science reporting, but their willingness to act as sources actually increased as the frequency of their contact with the media increased.

Another study by William Tillinghast5 found that among regular news sources in San Jose, California, the number of errors they were likely to report in news items was inversely related to the number of years they had served as news sources – the more years, the fewer errors reported.

From these two studies, Whitney concludes in his review that where experience with the news media is intense, as it is for news sources,

Considerable sophistication develops along with that experience, people becoming both more skilled at dealing with the media and more aware of the news media’s limitations. It may be that whether positive or negative assessments emerge among such people is dependent upon the nature of their specific media contacts.6

To support this last point, Whitney cites a 1985 report from the Gannett Center for Media Studies7 that is based on summer 1985 surveys of residents of Baltimore, Maryland, and Toledo, Ohio. These surveys found that being a news source, or being written about, does affect one’s opinion of the news media in a generally positive way. Those who had been quoted in news stories were significantly more likely to say, “It’s important to have a free press even when the press acts irresponsibly” (68 percent agreed, compared to 52 percent of those who had not been sources). News sources were more likely to say that their newspapers were factual, but also more likely to say that they were biased. News sources were more likely to say that they would trust the news media (90 percent vs. 74 percent of others) rather than a government official. Whitney concludes from these findings, “… we can say with some confidence that favorable experiences as a news source are associated with positive media attitudes.”8 But he cautions that unfavorable experiences with media are linked to highly unfavorable opinions.

A recent unpublished study of public confidence in TV reporters and newspaper reporters by James Tankard and Koji Fuse9 speculates:

The lack of numerous and strong relationships with demographic variables suggests that confidence in reporters may have its sources of variance elsewhere… . Confidence in media reporting may be a function of an interaction of situational variables relating to the news event, the nature of its coverage and individual characteristics of the news consumer.10

The American Society of Newspaper Editors’ three-year long Journalism Credibility Project was a comprehensive study of public attitudes about media credibility. Conducted nationally with 3,000 respondents, the study concluded (in part) that members of the public who have had actual experience with the news process are the most critical of media credibility.

Of the 31 percent of adults responding to the ASNE study who said that they had been the subject of a news story or had been interviewed by a newspaper reporter, 24 percent said they weren’t quoted correctly, 31 percent found errors in the story (primarily misinterpretations), and 7 percent felt they suffered pain or embarrassment because of the errors.11

The ASNE report concluded that adults who have direct experience with the news process are more likely to have strong beliefs about the media, including that the media are biased and that public dissatisfaction with them is justified. In addition, the report found that experience with the news process colored people’s perceptions of newspapers. Those who were subjects of news stories or had been interviewed for stories were more likely to believe that newspapers are biased in their decisions about what to publish, are unfair in reporting on groups they disagree with, and don’t respect the intelligence of their readers.

Indeed, the study concluded:12

In short, the people with the highest source credibility among their peers are newspapers’ most severe critics – while those who have never been interviewed, never been written about, and never been witness to a news event they later read about are more forgiving.13

Findings from these earlier studies suggest the following hypothesis:

H1: The better one’s experience as a news source, the more favorable one’s attitudes toward the local newspaper.

In addition, several research questions are addressed through descriptive and comparative analyses from this and previous studies:

Q1: How positively do news sources evaluate the stories written about them in local newspapers?

Q2: How will approval of investigative news practices differ for people who serve as media sources as opposed to members of the general public and journalists?

Q3: How will approval of media roles differ for people who serve as media sources as opposed to journalists?


These research questions and hypotheses were examined through a survey mailed to people who were news sources for newspapers in three U.S. Midwestern cities. Newspapers included in the study were the Iowa City (Iowa) Press-Citizen (published on Monday-Friday & Saturday), the Bloomington (Indiana) Herald-Times (Monday-Friday & Saturday) and the Manhattan (Kansas) Mercury (Monday-Friday & Sunday). All three are medium-sized communities with major universities and daily newspapers of a very common size. Daily circulations for the three are between 10,000 and 30,000, which makes these newspapers more typical of U.S. daily newspapers in general than studies based on very large papers would be.

Stories were selected from each of the three newspapers from the twoweek period beginning February 2 and ending February 14,1998. All stories that were locally generated by staff reporters for each paper were included (excluding sports, police reports, obituaries, letters to the editor and invited columns). With a multi-source story, the same story was sent to more than one source. Source was defined as anyone whose name appeared in the story and who had supplied information for the story.

Stories were photocopied, leaving ample room for marginal comments, and mailed to sources with an attached questionnaire. Surveys were sent to 88 respondents in Manhattan, with 40 returned; 68 surveys were went in Iowa City, with 31 returned; and 132 were sent in Bloomington, with 43 returned. The overall response rate was 40 percent (45 percent in Manhattan, 46 percent in Iowa City, 33 percent in Bloomington.)


Variables of interest included the accuracy of the particular news story, an evaluation of the experience of dealing with the reporter who did the story, general experience as a news source, evaluation of local media in general, evaluation of all media (including national media) in general, and evaluation of particular practices and techniques associated with investigative reporting at both local and national levels.

Respondents were asked to evaluate the stories on dimensions that included accuracy, fairness, balance, attribution and completeness using a 5point scale to indicate agreement with a series of statements about the attached story. They also evaluated the newspapers overall using semantic differential scales on dimensions of fairness, bias, completeness, accuracy, responsibility and journalistic practice. Respondents also indicated how frequently they serve as a news source and the nature of their feelings while serving as a news source.

They were also asked to provide an evaluation of particular journalistic practices overall, including investigative reporting techniques (such as paying for confidential information, using confidential documents or unnamed sources, or deception to get a story). They also indicated the importance of several media roles, including getting information quickly to the public, providing analysis and interpretation, and being adversaries of government and business. Finally, respondents indicated basic demographic characteristics such as their sex, year of birth and education.


Research question 1

The first question asked how positively news sources would evaluate the stories written about them in local newspapers. There was a general acknowledgement among the respondents that stories were accurate and fair. Measures of accuracy, such as getting direct and indirect quotes right, ranked highest among 10 statements that respondents agreed with most strongly. Fiftytwo percent of respondents agreed strongly that direct and paraphrased quotes were accurate. Fifty percent agreed strongly that the story was fair, and 44 percent agreed strongly that the story was an accurate portrayal of the information they had provided to the reporter. Only 10 percent agreed with the negatively phrased statement that the reporter had included an error of fact, or had left out something that was essential to the story (12 percent).

About one third of respondents agreed strongly that the story emphasized what was important (33 percent), reflected positively on the respondent (31 percent), and was balanced (29 percent). A little more than one quarter of the respondents (26 percent) agreed strongly with the statement that they were pleased when they read the story.

Overall, 54 percent of news sources thought the stories sent to them were very fair, 44 percent said they were very accurate, and 21 percent said they were very complete. More than half of respondents said these stories were very fair, although they were more likely to say stories were only mostly accurate (50 percent) and mostly complete (59 percent).

Generally, respondents believe the locally written stories for which they were a source are very fair and accurate; they are somewhat less likely to believe these stories are complete.

Research question 2

How did approval of investigative news practices differ for people who serve as media sources as opposed to members of the general public and journalists? Responses from respondents to a general question asking about whether they approved of investigative reporting were compared with the results of several national public opinion surveys conducted in the past 20 years. Eighty-seven percent of respondents indicated that they approved of investigative reporting in general, which is consistent with the large approval ratings found in a Pew Center for People and the Press national survey conducted in 1997, which found 80 percent approval, and a Gallup national survey conducted in 1981 that found a 79 percent approval rating. Lars Willnat and David Weaver have noted that public opinion about investigative reporting has not changed much during this period, and that general approval for investigative reporting is much higher than approval for specific investigative reporting techniques.”

Although this was neither a large nor a random sample, there was a similar pattern among news sources. Table 1 illustrates these results. Respondents were less likely to approve of specific investigative reporting techniques than to approve of investigative reporting overall. The news sources were most likely to approve of using unnamed sources (66 percent, compared to 53 percent in the Pew study), getting employed in a firm or organization to gain access to information (59 percent, question not included in Pew study), and using hidden microphones or cameras (57 percent, 46 percent of Pew study).

Results were also compared to data gathered from American journalists by David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit and reported in The American journalist in the 1990s: News People at the End of an Era.15 Rankings are generally similar, although the journalists were not asked to indicate approval of using unnamed sources or of badgering sources to get a photo. The techniques that differ between the approval ratings of new sources and journalists by more than 30 percentage points are worth considering because they indicate a significant departure and probable real difference, even though these are two separate data sets, one a non-random sample, and it is not possible to perform tests of statistical difference.

Eighty-two percent of journalists approved (that is, said the practice might be justified on occasion) of using confidential business or government documents, and 34 percent of news sources did (a difference of 48 percentage points). Forty-nine percent of journalists approved of badgering an unwilling source to get a story, and 18 percent of news sources approved (a difference of 31 percentage points); 48 percent of journalists and 11 percent of news sources approved of using personal documents such as letters and photos without permission (difference of 37 percentage points); and 43 percent of journalists and 9 percent of news sources approved of disclosing the names of rape victims (difference of 34 percentage points), suggesting a striking gap between the ethical standards of journalists and news sources on these reporting practices a gap that may well contribute to decreased credibility of U.S. journalism in general.

Research question 3

How will approval of media roles differ for people who serve as media sources as opposed to journalists? The responses of news sources who said it was extremely important for the media to perform a number of specific roles were compared with responses from American journalists reported by Weaver and Wilhoit. These results are presented in Table 2.

Generally, this comparison indicates that rank ordering of the 13 roles is similar for both news sources and journalists, although a larger percentage of journalists than news sources say several of these roles are extremely important, especially getting information to the public quickly (69 percent of journalists versus 35 percent of news sources). Four other roles differ by a magnitude of about 20 percentage points: investigating claims and statements made by the government (67 percent of journalists, 45 percent of news sources); giving ordinary people a chance to express their views on public affairs (48 percent of journalists, 27 percent of news sources); staying away from stories where facts can’t be verified (49 percent of journalists, 30 percent of news sources); and providing analysis and interpretation of complex problems (48 percent of journalists and 29 percent of news sources).

These results indicate the possibility that there is agreement in the ranking of importance of these specific media roles, although journalists are more likely to believe these roles are extremely important than are news sources.

Hypothesis 1

It was hypothesized that the better one’s experience as a news source, the more favorable would be one’s attitudes toward the local newspaper. To test this hypothesis, an index of media credibility was first created based on the evaluation respondents made of their local newspaper. This was an additive, unweighted index derived from semantic differential responses to the following questions about the local newspaper: 1) biased or unbiased; 2) tells the whole story or doesn’t tell the whole story; 3) is accurate or inaccurate; and 4) can be trusted or can not be trusted. This measure has been used frequently in other studies of media credibility and provides a satisfactory level of reliability.6

A hierarchical regression analysis, which takes into account the simultaneous shared contributions of several blocks of independent variables, was conducted. Demographic variables were entered first (sex, age, education). This block was followed by the three variables representing overall assessment of the story respondents were asked to evaluate on the dimensions of accuracy, completeness and fairness. Next the variable indicating frequency as a news source was entered, and finally the variable that measured one’s positive experience as a news source (agreement with the statement: “Most of my experience as a news source has been good.”)

Entering the variables of primary interest last allowed for the most conservative test of their influence on local newspaper credibility.

Positive experience as a news source accounted for the greatest amount of the variance in the assessments of local newspaper credibility (12 percent). The block representing the evaluation one made of the recent news story explained 11 percent of the variance. The frequency of one’s experience as a news source contributed nothing to the change in R-square when that variable was entered into the equation. The demographic variable block, primarily through age, explained 8 percent of the variance. The fourth regression, which included all the blocks of variables, had an adjusted R-square of .31.

This suggests that frequency of news experience does little to influence one’s evaluation of the local media, which is in contrast to the ASNE credibility study findings. But the quality of that experience does have a significant effect, based on results in the study conducted here.


This study suggests several interesting results. First, news sources for local newspapers in three communities are generally pleased with the accuracy and fairness of the stories in which they appear. If they find fault with the quality of these stories, those faults seem to be sins of omission rather than sins of commission – that is, the news sources were more likely to find that stories were not complete, or the reporter hadn’t told the whole story. The rank order of newspaper credibility measures (illustrated in Table 3) indicates that the dimension “tells the whole story” is last in a series of 12. It may be important that these news sources tell us that stories are lacking in completeness – for whom but a source can readily identify such a shortcoming? Certainly the average reader would be less able to determine if there is more to the story.

In addition, this study found that the best predictor of local newspaper credibility is how good or bad one’s experience has been generally when serving as a news source. That finding alone isn’t terribly surprising, but it’s interesting that in multivariate hierarchical regressions that include the measure of how frequently one serves as a source, only the quality of the experience, not the quantity, is significant.

Finally, it is interesting that journalists, the people who are quoted by journalists, and the public that consumes journalism, evaluate the practices of journalism so differently. The big differences between journalists and news sources on the techniques of using confidential documents, badgering sources to get a story, using personal documents and photos without permission, and naming rape victims, suggests a deep divide between what journalists think is appropriate in these instances and what their sources believe – a divide that may contribute to decreased credibility of news media in general.

However, the agreement between these two groups, at least with regard to their similar rank ordering of the possible and various roles that media may assume, is encouraging. For in spite of the magnitude of difference in intensity with which each group advocates the extreme importance of these roles (and it’s no surprise that journalists see these roles consistently more important than the sources), these two groups do seem to concur on the most appropriate and important roles for the press – investigating the claims and statements made by government and getting information to the public quickly.

This study of news sources underscores the important role that experience with local newspapers has on the evaluations people make of them, and illustrates the unique contribution that serving as a source has on evaluations of newspaper credibility. The findings also suggest that local newspapers should be cautious about using questionable reporting methods and should make a greater effort to tell the whole story with as little overt bias as possible to improve their credibility with their news sources and most likely with the public in general.


1.D. Charles Whitney, The Media and The People: Americans’ Experence with the News Media: A Fifty- Year Review. New York, Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University, 1986.

2. Ibid., p.22.

3. George Gallup Jr., Americans Favor Tougher Controls on the Press. Editor & Publisher, January 19, 1980, p. 7.

4. Sharon Dunwoody and Byron T. Scott, Scientists as Mass Media Sources. Journalism Quarterly, Spring 1982, pp. 52-59.

5. William Tillinghast, Source Control and Evaluation of Newspaper Inaccuracies. Newspaper Research Journal 5, 1983, pp. 13-24.

6. Whitney, op.cit., p. 22.

7. D. Charles Whitney, The Media and the People: Soundings from Two Communities. New York, Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University, November 1985.

8. Whitney, Soundings, op.cit., p. 19.

9. James W. Tankard, Jr. and Koji Fuse, Reframing the Roper Question: An Examination of Public Confidence in Television Reporters and Newspaper Reporters, paper presented to the International Communication Association, Montreal, Canada, May 1997.

10. Tankard and Fuse, op.cit., p. 14.

11. ASNE Journalism Credibility Project, major finding Number 6; http://www.asne.org/ works/jcp/majorfinding6.htm.

12. ASNE, http://www.asne.org/works/jcp/majorfinding6.htm.

13. ASNE, http://www.asne.org/works/jcp/majorfinding6.htm.

14. Lars Willnat and David H. Weaver, Public Opinion on Investigative Reporting in the 1990s: Has Anything Changed Since the 1980s? Paper presented to the annual meeting of the Midwestern Association for Public Opinion Research (MAPOR), Chicago, November 1997.

15. David H. Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit, The American Journalist in the 1990s: News People at the End of an Era. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1996.

16. See Tony Rimmer and David Weaver, Different Questions, Different Answers?Media Use and Media Credibility. Journalism Quarterly , Spring 1987, pp. 28-37, 44. Cronbach’s alpha for this measure was computed at .82

Bergen is assistant professor in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass

Communications at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Lafky is associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, and Weaver is Roy W. Howard Chair of Research in the School of Journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Summer 2000

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