‘Vast Wasteland’ Stakes Claim for News Credibility

By Casey Bukro

Americans rank the three major major traditional commercial broadcast television networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—as the most credible news sources, according to a poll that explored the credibility of 13 print and digital news sources.

Newton Minow.
Newton Minow, as head of the Federal Communications Commission, called television a “vast wasteland.” Wikipedia photo.

“Despite the proliferation of coverage of fake news and historically low opinion of the media, a majority of adults think most cable news networks and major newspapers are credible,” reported morningconsult.com, a nonpartisan digital media and survey research company based in Washington, D.C.

“Television news gets the highest number of people saying they are credible, with major newspapers such as the New York Times not trailing far behind,” wrote Laura Nichols. While the three major television networks took the top three slots, the Wall Street Journal and the Times followed immediately after them.

Historically speaking, this is an interesting turn of events. Fifty-five years ago, Newton Minow, then chair of the Federal Communications Commission, described television as a “vast wasteland” in speech at the 1961 National Association of Broadcasters convention.

Despite such poor expectations, television news has grown into a giant. As technology improved, it became more ubiquitous, even intrusive. And the medium proved itself able to show and tell complicated issues, in documentaries and far-ranging reports. Even the humble smartphone records news events, turning everyone into a television photographer.

Clearly, the medium is a crowd-pleaser. Critics might argue television reports serve largely as a headline service. But the format has won public favor. Even Minow, who continues to be asked his opinion of television, appreciates today’s “wider range of choice.”

The Pew Research Center reports that in 2016, Americans express a clear preference for getting their news on a screen—either television or digital—although “TV remains the dominant screen.”

About four-in-ten Americans often get news online.
Television’s rival is now another screen medium. Pew Research Center graphic

Pew reported that 57 percent of U.S. adults get their nightly news on television, cable, local or network. That compared with 38 percent online, 25 percent on radio and 20 percent from print newspapers.

“As of early 2016, just two-in-ten U.S. adults often get news from print newspapers,” said Pew. “This has fallen from 27 percent in 2013.”

Television, too, could face disruption, said Pew, as younger viewers turn to online platforms for news.

Within the digital realm, said the report, mobile news consumption is rising rapidly. “The portion of Americans who ever get news on a mobile device has gone up from 54 percent in 2013 to 72 percent today,” said the report.

Personal contacts also are a common source of news, said Pew, including reports posted or sent online, “but Americans see clear distinctions between news organizations, friends and family, and more distant individuals.”

These trends clearly have not diminished the small screen. The Gallup Poll in 2013 reported that 55 percent of Americans reported that they turn to television for news about current events, followed by 21 percent on the internet, 9 percent on newspapers and 6 percent on radio.

“If the current media preferences of young adults are any indicator of the future,” said Gallup, “the data offer good news for TV, but bad news for print media.” Heavy reliance on print is exclusive to seniors, it said, among whom 18 percent cite newspapers or other print publications as their main source of news. By contrast, 6 percent to 8 percent of younger age groups rely on print.

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