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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

Amid everything one can say about local television news, the most striking public attitude toward local television is trust. Over the years survey after survey have shown a consistent pattern: when asked to rate different news mediums, people generally trust local television more than any other type of news. (When it comes to individual channels, CNN has come to be considered more credible, according to surveys.)

Believability of News Media
Percent of public rating medium highly believable, 1985 to 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, ‘‘News Media’s Improved Image Proves Short-Lived,’’ August 4, 2002
* Survey question: “How would you rate the believability of (item) on [a] scale of 4 to 1?”

While local television news still outpolls the broadcast news divisions and local newspapers for believability, the public’s trust is diminishing. In 1985, a third of the public (34 percent) said they could believe “all or most” of what they saw on local television news. In 2002, that had declined to one-fourth of the public (26 percent).1

The surveys also support what was indicated by the Nielsen ratings data. The public continues to turn to local television news more than any other television news source, but its influence is waning. In 1993, 76 percent of the public said they “regularly” turned to local television news for information. By 2002, that figure had fallen to 57 percent. Nonetheless, local television holds a large lead over its closest competitor, network television news. In 1993, 58 percent of the public turned to network news “regularly,” but that fell to 32 percent by 2002.2

Percent of People Regularly Using Specific News Media
1993 to 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, ‘‘Public’s News Habits Little Changed by September 11,’’ June 9, 2002
* Survey question: “Now I’d like to know how often you watch or listen to certain TV and radio programs. For each that I read, tell me if you watch or listen to it regularly, sometimes, hardly ever, or never.”

There are some other reasons, perhaps, for local news professionals to be wary when public attitudes toward the medium are examined. There is a big gap – and a potential problem for journalists – between what the public thinks of local television journalism and what the people who produce it think.

A large portion of the public, for instance, thinks think powerful outside forces – such as advertisers – “improperly influence” what news professionals present on broadcasts. Large numbers also do not feel that television news addresses their concerns. The television news people do not think there is any problem.

In some cases, the gap in perception between viewers and journalists about local television news is so large that, regardless of which group is right, the gap itself is a problem that needs to be addressed. Yet the fact that journalists seem so self-satisfied raises questions about whether they are ready to deal with it.

The gap is probably most noticeable when it comes to the question of outside forces improperly influencing newscasts. Fully 42 percent of the public think advertisers improperly influence the news, according to surveys from Bob Papper at Ball State University. And 40 percent think station owners do.3

Yet only 6 percent of news directors perceive improper influence by advertisers and only 7 percent by owners. Do the news directors think there is no influence, or only that that influence is not improper? It isn’t clear.

There are gaps in perception between the two groups of 36 and 33 percentage points. Even if one assumes the news directors are right and the public is wrong, this represents a serious perception problem for local television news.

Percent of General Public and News Directors Saying Local TV News Is “Often” Influenced by Specific Groups/Individuals

General Public News Directors Margin
Advertisers 42% 6% 36%
Station Owners 40 7 33
Big Business 37 7 30
Elected Officials 30 7 23
Federal Government 28 5 23
Interest Groups 27 8 19

Source: Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, “2003 Local Television News Study of News Directors and the American Public”

There is a similar perception gap over the question of whether local television news responds to viewer concerns. Fully four out of ten viewers (41 percent) think it does not or are unsure. Yet a whopping 95 percent of news directors think the industry does. When survey researchers asked people who had contacted a local television news station about having a concern addressed, respondents said by a 3-to-1 margin that the station had failed to do so.

The public is also much more likely than news directors to believe that television reporters allow their personal opinions to affect how they cover the news: Nearly a quarter of the people (22 percent) say they think the local television news reporters are “often” biased in their reporting, and 42 percent think it “sometimes” happens.

Yet only 8 percent of news directors see bias as a frequent problem and 46 percent see it as an occasional problem.

Finally, part of the perception gap concerns the ability of local news to handle complex issues. A majority of the public (52%) tend to think (“strongly or mildly agree”) local television news shies away from the complex, compared with 30% of news directors.

There is consensus in the research about what people want from local television. When asked what one quality they would like their local television newscast to emphasize, both the public and news directors put “thorough and complete” coverage of important local stories as their No. 1 priority, with 53 percent of the public putting this first and 71 percent of news directors putting it first. But the public is more likely than news directors to say that they wish their local news broadcast would emphasize investigations and be unafraid “to take on powerful people and business.” Twenty-nine percent of the public said that would be their first choice in a newscast, while only 16 percent of news directors would make that their first priority.

Factors Often Influencing Local TV News
General public opinion vs. news director opinion
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, “2003 Local Television News Study of News Directors and the American Public”

Footnotes

1. Pew Research Center, “News media’s improved image proves short-lived,” August 4, 2002, 2002 Believability Survey Final Topline, question 9, online at http://people-press.org/reports/print.php3?PageID=631.

2. Pew Research Center, “Public’s news habits little changed by September 11,” June 9, 2002, 2002 Biennial Media Consumption Survey, question 20, online at http://people-press.org/reports/print.php3?PageID=618.

3. All references in this section are to Radio-Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF), “2003 Local Television News Study of News Directors and the American Public,” online at http://www.rtndf.org/ethics/2003survey.pdf