A question of credibility?

Radio news professionals who already believe their product is too often taken for granted by consumers will probably not take comfort in a new report that provides a very mixed bag of findings.

In a comprehensive survey conducted for the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF), to be released at this week's RTNDA Convention in Minneapolis, radio news takes a few serious hits from listeners, but maintains its dominance as the most easily and heavily used electronic information medium throughout the weekday. Television remains the most influential news venue.

While the survey ranks some aspects of radio news' credibility slightly below the Internet, large segments of the public continue to rely on radio information in their daily lives. Localism in news and information remains what listeners value most. Yet music stations have nothing to fear from the more serious news programmers: The largest percentage of listeners get their news through the headline-type coverage offered by many music outlets.

The survey, by Statistical Research Inc. with support from the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation and the Ford Foundation, was conducted last winter among more than 1,200 adults 18-64.

The study had the added problem of trying to determine typical listener attitudes towards radio journalism-trying to define exactly what "news" is.

While many survey respondents consider routine local traffic and weather reports generally within the definition of news, they also contend that personality-driven talk and music programming offer more trustworthy news than even traditional newscasts, including all-news formats.

The haziness about defining what is/is not news does not come as a surprise to Peter Dominowski, president of Market Trends Research. His firm, in association with Public Radio News Directors Inc., recently compiled what may be the first-ever survey of the relevance of local information among non-commercial stations. Dominowski says even Jerry Springer is considered "news" to some consumers.

"Today, with everything from Entertainment Tonight to CNN going from news to talk to entertainment in daily coverage, the lines clearly are blurred," he observes. "News used to be much more strictly defined."

CNNRadio Vice President Robert Garcia, who is chairman of the RTNDA, says, "Radio is ubiquitous. Whereas a local media market has four or five TV outlets doing news, there may be 20 or more radio stations per market offering one form or another of news. Because there are so many sources for radio news and because the type of news each of those sources provides varies so greatly, it would stand to reason that the standards for the product may also vary greatly," he says.

"The more intense the degree of 'all-news' and 'talk' listening, the better the chances of a positive perception," says Garcia. He points out that 10% of respondents could not differentiate between talk and all-news radio.

Chris Berry, vice president/Radio for ABC News, points out that "radio listening-and especially listening to news-is rarely scheduled in the same manner that someone will regularly read a newspaper over a morning cup of coffee, or faithfully watch the 11 o'clock news. Add in the commentary of a topical talk host and it further confuses the issue of 'what is news' and, depending on the nature of the commentary, it all can have a negative effect on the credibility of the material heard."

In fact, when it comes to credibility, radio news does poorly among surveyed consumers. According to the new RTNDF survey, although listeners of all-news formats give their local outlets high marks, "in terms of accuracy, credibility, relevance and bias, radio news rated lower than both local and national television; in terms of perceived relevance and bias, radio rated lower than even the Internet."

However, RTNDA President Barbara Cochran disagrees that the study gives radio news low marks for credibility. "The responses on how much listeners 'trust' radio news are not very different from the responses on how much they trust other forms of news, so I wouldn't make too much of the ranking."

Cochran, a former CBS News Washington bureau chief and NPR news executive, says the survey was designed to "look at some trends that radio news directors should be aware of when making editorial decisions."