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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

According to survey data, the public now considers cable news about as credible as the broadcast network news divisions.

That, however, may be an illusory compliment. For the closing of the gap was almost entirely due to viewers’ losing faith in network news rather than gaining more confidence in the offerings of cable.

Cable News Believability
1985 to 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” June 8, 2004

Of the three channels, CNN still stands out as the most believable, in public perception. It has enjoyed that position even as Fox News has passed it in ratings. But for the last two years, CNN has lost believability, as has MSNBC, while Fox has improved slightly. This has implications both for CNN’s reputation and for its economic future.

According to data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, CNN’s believability fell three percentage points from 2002 to 2004 – 29% of Americans gave it the highest rating, versus 32% in 2002.

The downward trend began after 1993, when 41% of Americans gave the channel the highest believability rating – the highest percentage ever achieved by any outlet in Pew Research Center’s data going back to 1985.

Since then, CNN’s believability rating has dropped 12 percentage points. The decline is even more distressing to the network because before 1993 its credibility was climbing quickly.

While this is a sign that the opinion of the general public is changing, the trend also has economic implications. When CNN was established in 1980, some derided it as “Chicken Noodle News.” According to survey work conducted in 1985, CNN was considered less credible than any of the broadcast networks, with only 20% of all Americans giving it the highest believability rating (the networks, by contrast, were given the highest ratings by 30% to 32% of the population). At the time, half of Americans said they didn’t even know enough about CNN to rate its believability.

By 1989, it was already considered the most credible news outlet, with 33% of all Americans rating it highest. (The percentage saying they didn’t know enough about CNN to rate it had dropped to 24%.) The Gulf War only cemented its reputation. CNN became the network that provided the most vivid pictures from inside Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War, and the only network covering the conflict around the clock. Viewership peaked at 5.4 million viewers on January 17, 1991.1

CNN’s high believability rating is one of the clearest metrics of the high-quality “branding” that has kept Fox from matching it in revenue. CNN is still considered the most credible cable network, and is also considered more credible than any other news source with the exception of 60 Minutes, which is seen as equally credible. Figuring out what can be done to shore up its reputation for credibility, then, is probably critical to CNN’s ability to hold off the Fox challenge. If CNN cannot diagnose and address this problem and keep its credibility from falling further, it could mean it will suffer in the future as advertisers decide t it can no longer be considered the “gold standard” of cable news.

Between 2002 and 2004 MSNBC’s believability also dropped, from 21% to 18%. Fox News’s believability rose slightly, with 21% of Americans giving it the highest score for believability compared with 19% in 2002. What is notable is that the three cable news channels are considered about as trustworthy as the three broadcast news divisions. (A discussion of the relationship between credibility and partisanship is below.)

Cable News and News Knowledge

How much might people learn from their news outlet of choice? Here cable viewers seem to fall somewhere in the middle of the pack. Survey research suggests that people using different news sources can have very different impressions of reality.

In Pew Research Center’s January 2004 poll, half the people who said they were getting “most” of their campaign news from cable failed to correctly answer either of two basic questions about the Democratic presidential candidates.2 Just 24% were able to answer both questions correctly; another 25% could answer one correctly.

The level of knowledge was no better among viewers of cable news shows that focus specifically on politics. People who said they were getting “most” of their news from cable’s political talk shows were equally uninformed. Here, 25% answered both questions correctly, and another 25% could answer one question correctly.

Percent of Cable News Users Answering Campaign Questions Correctly*

Two Correct Answers One Correct Answer No Correct Answers
Cable News 24% 25 51
Cable Political Talk Shows 25% 25 50

Source: Pew Research Center on the People and the Press, “Cable and Internet loom large in fragmented political news universe,” January 11, 2004.
*The questions were: “Do you happen to know which of the presidential candidates served as an Army general?” (Wesley Clark) and “Do you happen to know which of the presidential candidates served as the Majority Leader in the House of Representatives?” (Dick Gephardt)

Cable viewers were less knowledgeable on these questions than Internet news users, 37% of whom answered both questions correctly, or NPR listeners (36%), but more knowledgeable than local TV viewers (14%) or morning news viewers (13%).3

One troubling implication of the ratings data is that if “news on demand” viewers – the least attentive, “occasional” cable news watchers – are depending on cable for information, they may be reacting to current events on the basis of mistaken impressions.

Partisanship and Credibility

The partisan motivations that may be affecting audience numbers, particularly at Fox (see Audience) also seem to be affecting assessments of cable channel credibility.

Among Democrats and Republicans, the believability of all three cable channels dropped from 2000 to 2004, with the sole exception of Republican opinion of Fox News’ believability, which increased only slightly: 26% of Republicans gave Fox News the highest possible score for believability in 2000, and 29% gave it the highest score in 2004.

A more detailed breakdown shows the gap between how Americans view the trustworthiness of the cable channels.

Among Americans expressing an opinion of Fox News, Pew Research Center’s 2004 study of believability found that 34% of conservative Republicans gave that network the highest rating for believability, compared with half as many (17%) liberal Democrats. Independents leaned slightly toward liberal Democrats, with 23% giving Fox News the highest mark.

Cable News Believability, by Political Leaning
June 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press unpublished data
* Percentage giving highest rating for believability.

Ratings for CNN and MSNBC were basically similar: in both cases liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to give the channels high marks for believability (for CNN: 37% to 17%; for MSNBC: 26% to 11%). Independents fell somewhere in the middle.

An argument could be made that CNN’s falling believability over all is related, in part, to the opinions of Republicans who are becoming less friendly toward CNN and more attuned to Fox News. Survey data show that between 2000 and 2004, Fox News was the only news outlet whose reputation for believability improved among Republicans – and by just a three-percentage point margin. (Believability ratings are not falling among people with other political viewpoints.) Most other news outlets were considered trustworthy by a notably lower percentage of Republicans. CNN’s believability rating fell 7 points, from 33% to 26%, and other outlets’ ratings dropped by the same or larger margins.4

Footnotes

1. Timothy Noah, “Beating swords into TV shares,” U.S. News & World Report, December 1, 1997.

2. The questions were: “Do you happen to know which of the presidential candidates served as an Army general?” (Wesley Clark) and “Do you happen to know which of the presidential candidates served as the Majority Leader in the House of Representatives?” (Dick Gephardt)

3. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Cable and Internet loom large in fragmented political news universe,” January 11, 2004. Online: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=200.

4. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” June 8, 2004, p. 2.