The Internet Is Not the Antidote: A Cultural-Historical Analysis of Journalism's Crisis of Credibility and the Internet as a Remedy

By Heflin, Kristen | Journalism History, October 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Internet Is Not the Antidote: A Cultural-Historical Analysis of Journalism's Crisis of Credibility and the Internet as a Remedy


Heflin, Kristen, Journalism History


Journalism is experiencing a severe crisis oi credibility. According to Gallup polls, Americans' confidence in the mass media has been consistently declining each year since 2007.' As only Tine indication of its depth, a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that credibility ratings for major news organizations are at or near their all-time lows.2 According to another 2012 study, believability ratings have declined for some of the most recognized names in news including: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, and NPR.3 Similarly, a 2014 Gallup poll found that confidence in newspapers and television news "is at or tied with record lows" with only 22 percent of Americans reporting that they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in either news source.4 According to Gallup, such low confidence in the credibility of newspapers and television news places these organizations near the bottom of the list of sixteen societal institutions. The only institutions perceived as less credible than television news and newspapers were big business, organized labor, HMOs, and Congress. Respondents even considered television news and newspapers less credible than banks, a revealing finding since banks are often blamed for the economic meltdown of 2008.5 This situation is characterized hy several scholars, including John Nerone, Tim P. Vos, Robert W. McChesney, and Ben Scott, as a full-blown crisis, a crisis of credibility.6

As audiences lose confidence in traditional news outlets, many see great promise in the Internet as a response to this crisis in journalism. For example, Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of the Washinpon Post, contends that the Internet has the power to significantly improve journalism, saying:

Journalists can gather news and information much more widely and deeply on the Internet. They can update and supplement their reporting continuously on blogs and social media-and they can have their reporting enriched and fact-checked by their audiences.7

In a debate on the news industry for The Economist, Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, echoed Downie's optimistic point, arguing that the Internet has made journalism better by dramatically reducing the cost of news distribution and production, which has "opened the market to more players, allowing more ideas to be tried," and by providing journalists with in- creased access to information resources. Rosen also contends that the Internet improves journalism because it creates a "healthier relationship" between journalists and their audiences. According to Rosen, professional journalists have no choice but to "raise their game," since the audience now has more power to choose among a wider variety of news sources, to participate in the conversation, and "to consult original sources" for more information.8

As a result of the Internets decentralized nature, many more people outside of professional news organizations can contribute to, distribute, and access a large, ever-expanding body of information. Given increased access to government documents, scholarly research, and expert opinions online, celebratory arguments about the benefits of finding information on the Internet can be compelling.

However, despite the persuasiveness of such arguments, seeing the Internet as an antidote to journalism's crisis of credibility downplays problems in doing so. After a brief discussion of liberal-democratic media theory and its normative expectations for the media, this article historicizes the present crisis of credibility by discussing the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century roots of criticisms that continue today. This study then explores how the Internet, as the most compelling solution to this crisis in credibility, developed to meet very different needs than those of mainstream journalism organizations. …

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