It is one thing for the indignant blogosphere to rail against the ways in which the mainstream media distort our sense of reality. It is another when such inadequacies of the media emerge in the result of a poll. Thus we should consider the following report released by Reuters yesterday morning:
Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe traditional journalism is out of touch, and nearly half are turning to the Internet to get their news, according to a new survey.
While most people think journalism is important to the quality of life, 64 percent are dissatisfied with the quality of journalism in their communities, a We Media/Zogby Interactive online poll showed.
"That's a really encouraging reflection of people who care A) about journalism and B) understand that it makes a difference to their lives," said Andrew Nachison, of iFOCOS, a Virginia-based think tank which organized a forum in Miami where the findings were presented.
Nearly half of the 1,979 people who responded to the survey said their primary source of news and information is the Internet, up from 40 percent just a year ago. Less than one third use television to get their news, while 11 percent turn to radio and 10 percent to newspapers.
More than half of those who grew up with the Internet, those 18 to 29, get most of their news and information online, compared to 35 percent of people 65 and older. Older adults are the only group that favors a primary news source other than the Internet, with 38 percent selecting television.
Now anyone who understands the intricacies of social theory knows that there is no such thing as an unbiased poll. This poll is no exception, so we need to be careful about how we read the actual data. The fact that the poll was conducted online excludes some segment of the sample space that clearly does not see the Internet as an option for getting news. If we do not know the size of that segment, we do not have a clear sense of how the numbers may be biased against it; and, to further complicate matters, it is unclear that a sample size that is less than 2000 is representative of those people who do use the Internet with enough of a comfort level to use it as a source of news (and, for that matter, take an online poll). So don't expect any fat ladies to start singing; in this particular opera we are probably barely at the end of the overture!
More important, however, is the unaddressed question of how those who claim to use the Internet actually do use it. This point was raised, at least in part, towards the end of the Reuters story:
Howard Finberg, of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, said the public often doesn't understand that the sources they are accessing online such as Google News and Yahoo News pull stories from newspapers, television, wire services and other media sources.
However, Finberg is only pointing out the tip of an iceberg. In addition to those who might rather passively let Google or Yahoo! tell them what they ought to know about the news, there are those who now use the Internet to read their favorite newspaper(s), either by going direct to that paper's Web site or by setting up RSS feeds. (Those newspapers, of course, also "pull stories" from wire services, particularly at a time when reporting staffs are being downsized. Furthermore, in response to the high cost of printing and distribution, the Internet "edition" of a newspaper is likely to have far more content than the print edition. The San Francisco Chronicle is now saying this explicitly to its print readers and, as one might guess, receiving a fair share of irate letters in response.) Similarly, there are other polls indicating that the audience for both television and radio delivered through the Internet is also increasing. Watching (or listening to) your favorite source for broadcast news on your computer or downloading its podcast version is tantamount to getting that news from television or radio, even if you are not using one of those more old-fashioned devices.
These questions all lead up to a more important question, which is whether or not those who get their news through the Internet are more active as readers than those who rely on television, radio, and newspaper. As I wrote at the beginning of the year, the greatest virtue of the Internet is that it facilitates our being more active as readers; but how many of us actually take advantage of that opportunity? For example we all recognize that there are (at least) two sides to every story; but how many of those people who use the Internet as their primary source of news react to reading a report by using Google (for example) to search for another "side of the story?" My guess is that more people see the Internet as a way to save time (through time-shifting and filtering), rather than a resource that enables spending more time reflecting on what they read. The Internet thus becomes a sort of Readers' Digest for news, which is great for efficiency but may do little when it comes to understanding the "digested" material one "consumes" (forcing me to exercise great caution in invoking any form of the verb "to read").
Thus, the most important result of this poll is that we need to know more about what Internet users are actually doing; and a poll is probably too coarse an instrument for such a study. This is more in the ballpark of the "Eyes on the Internet" studies that are sponsored by the Online Publishers Association (OPA). However, even those studies can raise more questions than they provide answers. To give the most obvious example, what study, regardless of its methodology, is likely to give us reliable figures on the amount of Internet time devoted to pornography? If people know they are being examined, they are going to adjust their behavior accordingly; and they are likely to object to any situation in which they do not know when they are being examined.