Media Credibility: Practice or Perception?

In response to my earlier posting, “Online Free Speech Case Shows Need for Thick Skin,” Martin Cahn, who writes for a small newspaper, wrote an extensive and thoughtful comment, which is well worth reading. (It’s listed beneath that article).

In part, Cahn noted: “My point is that, to me and many others I speak to, the ‘big media,’ whether in print, online or on the air, are the ones with the credibility gap, not smaller papers like mine and not independent providers like you.”

I understand what he’s saying. However, I personally believe that both the major media and the smaller/independent media have earned their share of credibility “darts and laurels” (to borrow from Columbia Journalism Review).

Media credibility is both a matter of practice and of perception…

People want news they can trust. Understanding your world becomes a bit simpler if you can trust that something you read in the Washington Post, hear on the BBC, or read in your favorite weblog is probably true.

When people consider you to be generally trustworthy or competent, they confer credibility upon you. No authors or venues can confer credibility upon themselves. That’s the “perception” side of credibility.

The “practice” side of credibility is that authors and venues can do a great deal to influence their perceived credibility – by, say, not publishing (or at least not getting caught publishing) scurrilous rumors. Having editorial policies and checks & balances (in the form of editorial oversight, fact-checking, etc. that involve more than one person) also can boost both practiced and perceived credibility.

I say these things can boost credible journalism. I’m not saying they necessarily do have that effect. Case in point: the Jayson Blair debacle. The credibility of the New York Times took a huge hit over that collapse of journalistic ethics, and rightly so – despite that prominent news organization’s multiple levels of editorial oversight.

Can independent publishers (one-person operations, like me), or small news organization establish a firm perception of credibility? Absolutely – but it takes a lot of work. The Internet allows virtually anyone to publish anything with very little cost or required accountability.

Also, the issue of credibility gets especially murky when considering commentary or analysis rather than straight news reporting. Far more independent online venues deal with commentary or analysis than conventional news reporting. Let’s face it – news reporting is hard work that requires considerable expertise and resources. The task of writing commentary and analysis is easier, which is a huge consideration if you’re not getting paid for that work (as is the case for the vast majority of independent online publishers).

Most non-journalists seem to vaguely believe that journalism ethics are far more formalized and required than is actually the case in this profession. In the U.S., journalists are not licensed. Freedom of the press is enshrined in our constitution – and freedom is a very diverse, complex, and tricky thing.

While some journalism organizations, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, have developed a code of ethics, these are not enforceable rules but really just recommended practices. About the most that can happen if you break these rules is you get kicked out of the SPJ, or you might lose your job or get reprimanded if your news organization has formal policies.

The fact is, established news organizations with considerable perceived credibility violate or bend ethical “rules” quite regularly. Sometimes they do it to “get the scoop;” sometimes out of sheer laziness; sometimes from political, legal, or business concerns. It happens. The larger and more established the publisher, the harder it is to dent its established perception of credibility. But I think it’s important for non-journalists to understand that a venue’s perceived credibility often does not square with its day-to-day practices. It may be better or worse than you think.

It seems to me that the Internet is profoundly disquieting to many people in and out of the media business because it is gradually eroding our faith in the news – not only in the quality and credibility of news, but it’s even making us question what is news. This makes understanding our world more complicated. We have to put forth more mental effort to decide what information we wish to trust.

In the long run, I think this is far healthier than having blind faith in news organizations. However, it also is more work – and our world seems less certain when we approach all news more skeptically. Ultimately, we all must rely on our own judgment and inner compass, even about issues and events for which we have no firsthand experience or expertise. That’s life, and I think the Internet is helping us remember that uncomfortable fact.