Credibility is a central professional value for journalists. For audiences, perceived credibility of the media affects choices of and responses to the news. Scholars and journalists disagree about what constitutes credibility, but agree that it relates primarily to the truthfulness and accuracy of the facts journalists report. Credible journalism is reliable and believable. However, scholars, mostly in the United States, argue that credibility goes beyond believability (Metzger et al. 2003), and demonstrate that it encompasses fairness, lack of bias, accuracy, completeness, and trustworthiness (Meyer 1988).
The broader definitions of credibility describe a relationship between audiences and journalists, under uncertain conditions, where audiences cannot fully verify the character and intentions of the journalists and the veracity of their reports. Audiences expect that credible journalists will act according to shared norms of honesty and fairness, and expect reading and watching the news to be worthwhile activities. These expectations depend on secular norms such as professionalism, which vary from one place to another. In the United States, for example, credible journalists who live up to the standards of their profession are expected to tell the whole story in a sincere, precise, fair, and truthful manner, reporting to serve the public good, not personal or partisan interests. In Europe, by contrast, professional culture puts somewhat less emphasis on objectivity and neutrality.
Credibility As A Journalistic Norm
Surveys of journalists worldwide have documented the importance of credibility as a norm for journalists and editors. All national US journalists surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 1999 said that “getting the facts right” was a “core principle” for journalism, and almost all (98 percent) said the same for “getting both sides of the story.” Large majorities of journalists in several other nations, including Chile, Hong Kong, Germany, Taiwan, and Mexico, rated credibility most important (Weaver 1998).
Journalists’ codes of ethics also make credibility a central tenet (Tsfati 2004). In these documents, credibility is the rationale for many journalistic dictates, even for not accepting gifts. The ethics codes mention audience trust as an asset that journalists may now enjoy, but could lose through misconduct. Journalistic discourse almost everywhere treats trust as the raison d’être for the profession.
Reactions of journalists to events that could damage trust in the profession also suggest that credibility is central. US journalists felt assaulted, humiliated, and befouled in the wake of the Janet Cooke scandal, involving a Pulitzer Prize winning series, because the author faked the existence of a specific source, in violation of the credibility norm (Eason 1986). A similar professional discourse followed in Germany after journalist Gerd Heidemann published the forged Hitler Diaries in Stern magazine in 1983, and in the United Kingdom after the James Forlong scandal, involving a faked Sky News report about a missile firing during the 2003 Iraq war.
Credibility As Seen From The Audience Perspective
In the occupational culture of journalists, credibility plays a role as a goal, a tool, an asset, and a rationale behind most professional creeds. For journalists themselves, audience assessments of their credibility are associated with their adherence to professional norms.
However, US scholars have examined credibility mostly from the perspective of the audience, not of journalists. Findings demonstrate that audiences attend to more mainstream news if they consider the mainstream news media credible. Those who rate journalists low on credibility tend to diversify their news diets and attend to more alternative news. Perceived news credibility was found to moderate an array of media effects, including agenda setting, priming, and the perceived climate of opinion. In other words, the news media exert more influence on audiences who perceive them as credible and less influence on those who remain relatively skeptical about their credibility.
What factors underlie audience perceptions of media credibility? The perceptions may result when audiences take cues from elites (Watts et al. 1999), when the media pay more attention to the blunders of journalists, or when audiences are exposed to cynical or strategic media framing of politics. The perceptions of media credibility may also result from psychological mechanisms, such as when involved partisans categorize and recall selectively (Vallone et al. 1985), from political variables, such as the extent of political involvement, and from interpersonal factors, such as the prevalence of conversations with like-minded individuals (Eveland & Shah 2003).
Research On Credibility
Dimensions Of Credibility In Classic Research
Research on the concept of credibility takes place in three principal domains: the source, the message, and the medium. Hovland et al. (1953) initiated the first, source credibility, by focusing on the communicator – an individual, group, or organization. With his Yale colleagues, Hovland related credibility to the judgments perceivers make about whether the source is believable. Since the 1960s, scholars have emphasized message credibility, by focusing on what characteristics could make messages more or less believable. The third domain is the channel that delivers content, media credibility, focusing on which media are most believable and what makes them so (Kiousis 2001). In early research, respondents rated TV news more credible than newspapers. In subsequent studies, respondents rated Internet news more credible than other media.
The main dimensions of source credibility are expertise (a communicator’s qualifications for knowing the truth in a certain area) and trustworthiness (a communicator’s motivation to tell the truth about that topic). Later research found evidence that secondary dimensions, such as dynamism, composure, and sociability, support source credibility (Berlo et al. 1969). Liking, and perceiving oneself as similar to, a speaker tend to make him or her seem more trustworthy. The main dimensions of message credibility include structure (the organization of a message) and content (including language intensity and the fluency and speed of delivery).
Hovland and his colleagues thought of credibility as a static and objective characteristic of the source. Gradually, scholars began to shift attention to the audience and, by the 1980s, were measuring credibility as a dynamic and subjective experience that varies across individuals. The concept was relabeled perceived news credibility. Early persuasion research examined any communication sources, relying on experiments, but recent research deals with mass media news sources, using surveys. The main dimensions of media credibility include credibility and social concerns. Typically, respondents rate a media outlet on whether it is fair, unbiased, accurate, comprehensive, and trustworthy (Meyer 1988), for credibility. Social concerns include whether the outlet has the public interest at heart.
Some research asks news sources to locate factual errors in articles that mention them (Maier 2005). The findings were that the error rate in US newspapers had increased from almost half (46 percent) in 1936 to well over half (61 percent) in 2005 (although scholars used different newspapers throughout the years). Higher frequencies of errors accompanied lower perceptions of the credibility of the story and the newspaper. The trend overlaps longitudinal polls, which show declining confidence and trust in mainstream US news in recent decades (Moy & Pfau 2001). The share of those having little confidence in the press grew from 14.6 percent in 1973 to 44 percent in 2004. Scholars, journalists, and media pundits interpret these poll results as a credibility crisis for mainstream journalism (Gaziano 1988).
The concept of credibility has sparked a large amount of research, much of it from interpersonal communication and persuasion and very little in the context of journalism. Future research should include the perspectives of journalists and of the audience, as well as examining the credibility of the message and the medium. Such integrated studies would broaden understanding of credibility and its consequences.
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