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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

Public attitudes about the press have been declining for nearly 20 years.

Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes and generally more harmful to democracy than they did in the 1980s.

Consider a few changes in the numbers between 1985 and 20021:

The notion of a credibility crisis in the press first gained significant notice in 1985, when a survey report by Kristin McGrath of MORI Research conducted for the American Society of Newspaper Editors declared that “three-fourths of all adults have some problem with the credibility of the media.”2

A year later, the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press (now the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press) challenged those findings. That survey, produced for Times Mirror by Gallup, focused on “believability,” not credibility, and considered this a better measure since journalists and their news organizations are supposed to be believed, not loved. “If credibility means believability, there is no credibility crisis,” wrote Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center and media analyst Michael Robinson.3

Since then, however, even the believability of most news organizations has declined, the Center has found. By August 2002, the percentage of Americans who rated their daily newspaper as highly believable fell from 80 to 59 percent. ABC News fell from 83 to 65 percent, CBS from 84 to 64 percent, and NBC from 82 to 66 percent. Local news stations fell from 81 to 65 percent. Virtually every news organization has fallen. Only a few news organizations on the list studied since 1985 stand out for their relative stability – public broadcasting’s “NewsHour” (down just 3 percentage points) and The Wall Street Journal (up slightly).

Various organizations have studied this trend, though often with different questions, and all have found the same basic pattern. Researchers have identified several root causes. A study by Chris Urban for the American Society of Newspaper Editors thought it was inaccuracy and the sense that journalists sensationalize the news to sell newspapers and advance their careers.

Kohut has probably looked at the trend longer and harder than anyone. Fifteen years ago, Kohut says, the public thought the press was “too sensational, too pushy, to rude, too uncaring about people and the public.” But most people saw journalists as moral, professional and caring about the interests of the country.4

Today, says Kohut, the public considers the news media even less professional, less accurate, less moral, less helpful to democracy, more sensational, more likely to cover up mistakes and more biased.

After watching these numbers closely for years, we at the Project suggest that all of these matters – the questions about journalists’ morality, caring about people, professionalism, accuracy, honesty about errors – distill into something larger. The problem is a disconnection between the public and the news media over motive. Journalists believe they are working in the public interest and are trying to be fair and independent in that cause. This is their sense of professionalism.

The public thinks these journalists are either lying or deluding themselves. The public believes that news organizations are operating largely to make money and that the journalists who work for these organizations are primarily motivated by professional ambition and self-interest.

This disconnect over the motives of journalists may have been exacerbated by the growing critique by conservatives over the last few years that most mainstream news organizations are distorting their coverage with an ideologically liberal agenda. A growing legion of press critics also may have sensitized the public to weaknesses in the news media.

Another factor may be adding to this. People in these surveys are increasingly distrustful of giant corporations, the sort that now own most of the news media.

Footnotes

1. “News Media’s Improved Image Proves Short-Lived,” August 4, 2002, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

2. Newspaper Credibility: Building Reader Trust, a National Study Commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. (Minneapolis: MORI Research Inc., April 1985)

3. The People & the Press: A Times Mirror Investigation of Public Attitudes Toward the News Media Conducted by the Gallup Organization. (Washington, D.C.: Times Mirror, January 1986).

4. “The New Rules: 1999 Talking Points,” unpublished speech talking points, Andrew Kohut, 1999, used as the basis for various speeches.