Consumer Group Examines Web Credibility

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By: Carl Sullivan

Online journalists spend a lot of time fretting over issues of church and state, but what about consumers? Do they really care?

A new study from Consumers Union suggests that the public is concerned about the questions that news Web sites often agonize over. Nearly 60% said “it is very important that advertising be clearly labeled and distinguished from news and information” on the Web.

The research was released Tuesday by Consumer WebWatch, a project of Yonkers, N.Y.-based Consumers Union. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the three-year project launched its Web site today at http://www.consumerwebwatch.org/.

Project director Beau Brendler said Consumer WebWatch will initially focus its research on the parts of the Web that consumers use most often, such as e-commerce and health. He said the project probably wouldn’t look at news sites specifically for at least a year, although some Consumer WebWatch research, such as compliance with privacy policies, will apply to all types of Web sites.

The ongoing research will be presented on the free Consumer WebWatch site, with selected studies running in Consumer Reports magazine.

Brendler said the project will not attempt to rate the content of news sites, but would rather focus on issues such as disclosure of potential biases by media organizations and clear labeling of advertising content. “We’ll encourage sites to be transparent about the financial interests behind the content they publish,” he said.

Consumer WebWatch will work closely with the news industry as it conducts its research, Brendler added. “There are some terrific journalism organizations out there working on the same issues,” said Brendler as he cited work by the Online News Association (of which he is a member) and the American Society of Magazine Editors.

ONA President Bruce Koon, who is the executive news editor at Knight Ridder Digital in San Jose, Calif., said he welcomes Consumer WebWatch. “The craft of journalism has always been about finding best practices and we’re still developing those in the online world,” he said. “Any kind of study or discussion that gets into those issues is clearly in all of our best interests.” Koon said he wouldn’t support any kind of rating system that tried to rank the quality of content on news sites.

ONA is now disseminating its own credibility study, which is available on its Web site: http://www.journalists.org/.

To kick off Consumer WebWatch, which was announced last summer, five guidelines were designed to help all types of Web sites improve the credibility of their information:

1. Identity: Sites should clearly disclose ownership, purpose, and mission.

2. Advertising and sponsorships: Sites should clearly distinguish news and information from advertising and e-commerce.

3. Customer service: Sites should disclose all fees charged and relevant financial relationships with other sites.

4. Corrections: Sites should be diligent about correcting false or misleading information.

5. Privacy: These policies should be easy to find and understand.

The initial survey of consumers for Consumer WebWatch was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates. Consumer WebWatch’s advisory board includes Dallas Morning News Managing Editor Stuart Wilk, APME project director Carol Nunnelley, online usability advocate Jakob Nielsen, and a number of journalism professors.

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