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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In a world that is increasingly flooded with information, news magazines, particularly the weeklies, would seem well positioned for success. Their unique position in the media culture as synthesizers and summarizers is arguably needed more now than ever. Increasingly, however, survey data show that the declining interest much of the news media are facing is being felt in the magazine industry as well.

Credibility

The public “believability” numbers for the weeklies have been declining even faster than the rates at which they have lost readers. They now score better than many newspapers, but the Big Three news magazines rank below all the network news organizations and beneath CNN and Fox News cable outlets, according to surveys from the Pew Center for the People and the Press.1 To be fair, these numbers may somewhat overstate the problem. News magazines have fewer people reading them, and non-readers tend to say they “don’t know” if they trust the reporting, rather than trusting or not trusting.

Who the Public Believes
Percent of people who say they can believe most or all of what each outlet reports.
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, News Audiences Increasingly Polarized, June 8, 2004

These numbers are in some ways particularly damning for the weeklies. Freed from the constraints of daily or even hourly deadlines, their copy should in theory be much cleaner than that of their brethren in the electronic media. Instead the weeklies, while scoring higher than daily newspapers, seem to receive little credit for being more accurate. This may be due to their turning away from reporting events and toward “framing” and analyzing the news, as well as turning toward increased coverage of entertainment and lifestyle topics. The surveys found that magazines featuring lighter fare consistently scored lower than hard-news outlets on credibility.

News Magazine Believability Over Time
1985 – 2004, Select Years
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “News Audiences Increasingly Polarized,” June 8, 2004
*Question: How would you rate the believability of ____ on a scale of 4 to 1?

Interestingly, U.S. News, the magazine that content analysis shows contains the most hard news, is ranked highest of the three news weeklies in believability.2 It is also the only outlet that has had an increase in its credibility scores. The difference is slight, though, and the magazine also has the shortest trend line.

What Readers Know

One last interesting measure of the news weeklies’ audience – their knowledge on current events – is revealing. As part of its survey, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked people four basic questions about current events in 2004 – questions ranging from the Martha Stewart verdict to the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq. Only 42% of readers of the Big Three got all four questions right. That number places their audience behind viewers of Larry King Live, the O’Reilly Factor, and even the satirical Daily Show. Is also places them far behind the audience that scored best on the quiz, readers of two nontraditional news magazines we studied, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, 59% of whom knew the answers to all four questions.3

What Audiences Know
Percent of ’regular’ audiences answering four current events questions correctly
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, ’News Audiences Increasingly Polarized,” June 8, 2004
* Questions: Do you happen to know which political party has a majority in the U.S. House?, Do you know the name of the terrorist organization that is responsible for the September 11th attacks on the United States?, In the recent trial involving Martha Stewart, can you recall whether (read possible outcomes)?, Since the start of military action in Iraq last March, about how many U.S. soldiers have been killed? To the best of your knowledge, has it been under 500, 500 to 1000, 1000 to 2000, or more than 2000?

Without knowing what overlap, if any, exists between the audiences listed, it is hard to come to hard conclusions about what these numbers mean. But one reading of the data suggests that there are still audiences out there for the news magazines to mine – audiences interested in news. For instance, the news knowledge of the relatively young viewers of Comedy Central’s Daily Show indicates that younger readers aren’t avoiding all contact with current events. Indeed the younger viewers of the show, which Comedy Central says are 78% more likely than the average adult to have four or more years of college, are up on current events.4 They simply choose not to read the traditional news magazines because they lack time, they don’t like the structure or tone or perhaps they don’t like to read to get their news. The wide gap in knowledge between the audiences of the traditional weeklies and those of The New Yorker and The Atlantic suggests that these nontraditional formats may have an edge with knowledgeable news consumers.

Footnotes

1. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized.” Question 22.

2. Ibid.

3. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized.” Questions 41 -44. “Attitudes Toward News” section.

4. Comedy Central press release, September 28, 2004. http://www.comedycentral.com/press/pressreleases/release.jhtml?f=09_28_04_daily_show_bill_o_reilly.xml