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People Care More About Trust Than Scoops

We have written a number of times about how social media and the “democratization of distribution” have compressed the news cycle to the point where the half-life of a scoop is measured in minutes, rather than hours or days. Judging by a survey of media attitudes that Craigslist founder Craig Newmark has just released, the number of people who care about who first reported something is rapidly diminishing—if it was ever that important to begin with. Instead, what matters most to readers and listeners and viewers is the trustworthiness of the source, whether it’s a TV program or a newspaper. Trust, as Newmark likes to say, is “the new black.”

The survey, which was done by a polling firm in January, came out of Newmark’s new venture, Craigconnects, which he has said is an effort to help nonprofit entities of all kinds connect with supporters. But the Craigslist founder also has an oft-stated passion for the issue of trust and the media—he has called a trustworthy press the “immune system of democracy”—and the survey was designed to look at consumer perceptions of both social media and mainstream media sources such as television, radio, Internet news sites, and newspapers, focusing specifically on news coverage of the upcoming U.S. election.

When it comes to “perceived credibility,” traditional news outlets can take some comfort from the fact that the survey revealed that newspapers, cable news, and network news sources have the highest levels of credibility, much higher than blogs and social-media sources. The bad news is that only about 22 percent of those surveyed said they found traditional sources to be credible. (Blogs and social media were seen as credible by just 6 percent.) In a surprising ray of hope for newspapers, those from18 to 35 were most likely to regard newspapers as credible, at 33 percent.

The survey also asked what is the most valuable quality for a news source when it comes to reporting on election news, giving respondents a choice between “first to report a story,” “free of charge,” “in-depth analysis,” and “trustworthy.” Close to 50 percent of those who responded (the survey posed the questions to 1,000 people nationwide) chose trustworthiness as the most important quality, and almost a quarter said that in-depth analysis was most important. Just 6 percent of those who were asked said it was important that a news outlet be first to report something.

It’s dangerous to read too much into any survey, if only because people often tell researchers what they want to hear. TV surveys used to find huge numbers of people reporting that they watched PBS or nature shows, when in reality most were watching sitcoms. So it’s possible that many people who filled out Newmark’s survey said they were interested in in-depth analysis because they wanted to look smart, or said “trustworthiness” because it sounded like the right thing to say. Still, the results fit with the evolving nature of the news business online, one in which the trust of readers (or viewers) is far more important than if an outlet was first to report something.

News outlets of all kinds continue to fight over bragging rights to news, like dogs fighting over an old bone. Supporters of the New York Times criticize bloggers such as Kashmir Hill for “stealing” a story by summarizing it in a blog post, and news services such as Sky News and the Associated Press block their journalists from breaking news on Twitter or other social networks because they think they can somehow “save” it for their platforms. The reality of the news ecosystem now is that news can be broken by just about anyone, including non-journalists who happen to be close to an event; these often wind up committing what NPR’s Andy Carvin has called “random acts of journalism.”

As the old “bloggers vs. journalists” war continues to rage in different forms and traditional journalists such as Dan Lyons at the Daily Beast and Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times criticize what they see as a lack of objectivity in New Media sources, it is worth remembering that trust is the benchmark for any news outlet or media source—regardless of what medium it inhabits or whether those producing the content have degrees from a journalism school or ink on their fingers. Newmark’s survey seems to confirm that the trust game is still wide open for anyone to win.

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