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Americans still turn to traditional news media first

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Gene Policinski
September 16, 2009

When it comes to a free press, Americans still like the idea—but after that, well, there are questions.


Most of us still depend on traditional news media—television, newspapers and radio—when it comes to learning of breaking news or finding out more about the big story, according to the just-released 2009 State of the First Amendment survey conducted by the First Amendment Center.


And while “new media,” from Twitter to social-networking sites and beyond, have been garnering headlines as the hottest, hippest methods of getting information, most of us still see those new kids on the news-media block for what they are: innovative, but not yet the place to “bet the information farm.”


About half of adults responding to the national survey, in late July and early August, said television is the first place they learn of a major news event. And about the same number said it would be the first place they would turn for breaking news. Sure, TV was the overwhelming choice, at 64 percent, for Americans older than 65. But it still was the first choice for 42 percent of those ages 18-35.


About two-thirds of those answering the survey disagreed with the statement that the news media try to report the news without bias. But just 3 percent said they considered Twitter a “reliable news source.” And 49 percent of Americans still weren’t familiar enough with Twitter to have formed an opinion about its reliability.


Of course, time and technology have not stood still. The picture of what constitutes a “free press” and the news media isn’t what it used to be—and not even what it was just a few years ago, after the Internet’s debut. Web-based news and information providers such as AOL and Google came in second, as the source 28 percent of respondents turn to for breaking news, with newspapers and radio trailing in single digits.


But much of the news reported on those Web sites and elsewhere on the Internet comes from reports originating in—and identified as coming from—those longtime news organizations. So rack up more percentage points for traditional news organizations here.


This is not to say that Twitter and similar offerings shouldn’t be given their due: The instant capability to communicate brought many of us the first glimpses of news about terror attacks in Mumbai, India, earthquakes in China, election results (and the resulting violence) in Iran, and forest fires in the United States. Such tweets and re-tweets may have alerted many Americans that something was going on.


So for the largest numbers of us, old and young, information in the Information Age still comes from sources we’re familiar with, even if many have questions about how it’s presented. “New” and “now” are not synonymous with “best” and “reliable.”


What the 2009 State of the First Amendment survey shows, at its most basic, is yet more evidence that Americans have a multiplicity of sources from which they can gather information—and that they measure reliability along with speed.


Regardless of the method or technology involved, that’s a situation completely in keeping with the marketplace of ideas that was fundamental for the nation’s founders in creating a democratic republic, where the governed have free access to information and the freedom to discuss it.


Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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