More than a quarter of Americans have little or no confidence in the federal government's ability to quickly provide accurate information needed to protect themselves and their loved ones, the survey found. Many want the government to make greater use of new technology such as e-mail to send alerts and warnings of emergencies.
The telephone survey of 1,001 adults was conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and Federal Computer Week magazine on the eve of the second anniversary of the deadliest terrorist assault on U.S. soil.
It found 49 percent of Americans afraid that terrorist cyberattacks could cripple key infrastructure, banks and businesses.
Among Internet users, the fear was slightly higher, at 54 percent, and women were more likely than men to express those fears. The survey was conducted Aug. 5-11, before the widespread blackout and worldwide computer headaches caused by fast-spreading worms, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, four-fifths of Americans relied primarily on television for coverage, according to an earlier Pew study. In the early hours, many Americans had trouble reaching Internet news sites because of heavy demand.
The new survey found 57 percent of Americans would turn to television first and 15 percent would listen to radio. Government followed at 9 percent and news Web sites at 6 percent. Only 3 percent said they would use a government Web site.
Although 71 percent said they felt very or somewhat confident that government would provide the information they need, 18 percent were not very confident and 9 percent not confident at all.
"Americans put a premium on trusted news sources," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project. "Although the news coming out of those news sources would be government information, people appreciate the sort of review process and editorial judgment that traditional news organizations go through."
In addition, Americans have grown accustomed to turning to television in an emergency, while the Internet is a more recent phenomenon, Rainie said.
"It's a habit," said Deborah Smith, 48, a professor of community and human services at Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "It's what your government has trained you to do. The emergency warning system doesn't come through the Internet. It comes through radio and television."
Lois Ann Scheidt, 44, a doctoral student in computer-mediated communications at Indiana University, said she learned about the Sept. 11 attacks in an Internet chat room and immediately turned to radio.
"I find listening to someone talk comforting," she said. "It was almost instinctive."
Nonetheless, 22 percent of Americans thought the government should notify Americans on cell phones and pagers if there is a terror attack, and 18 percent wanted alerts by e-mail.
"We should take advantage of multiple channels," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va.
Miller, who was in New York during the blackout, said he had to get news on his Blackberry, an e-mail capable pager, because televisions didn't work.
Chad Kolton, emergency management spokesman with the Department of Homeland Security, said the government is open to new technologies and methods to communicate more quickly and efficiently.
Ken Allen, executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Warning in McLean, Va., said television and radio have appeal because they are passive.
"I'm not sure people would know where to go in government," said Allen, whose organization advocates greater use of technologies for sending alerts. "Do you call your 911? Do you go to the Internet to check federal sites? You also have to go somewhere to make a phone call or dial up the Internet. It's much easier to turn on television."