By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
Americans remain skeptical about the news media.
Yet it would be going too far to say things have gotten demonstrably worse of late, despite a wave of high-profile scandals involving plagiarism and fabrication at some of the nation’s most established news institutions. Either Americans were paying scant attention to cases like Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, or these high-profile cases only confirmed what people already thought.
The general trends in public attitudes about the press are familiar, and we reviewed them in some detail last year. People have long considered the press sensational, rude, pushy, and callous. But in the last 17 years, they have also come to see the press as less professional, less moral, more inaccurate, and less caring about the interests of the country. Consider just a few statistical changes between 1985 and 2002.
- The number of Americans who thought news organizations were highly professional declined from 72% to 49%.
- The number who thought news organizations were moral fell from 54% to 39%.
- Those who felt news organizations tried to cover up their mistakes rose from 13% to 67%.
- The number who thought the press got the facts straight fell from 55% to 35%.
- Those who thought news organizations were biased politically rose from 45% to 59%.
In other words, Americans do not resent the sense of professional ethics or the aspirations or independence of the press. Rather, they feel journalism is not living up to those goals. They increasingly think the press as a whole is motivated by money and individual journalists by personal ambition.
That, incidentally, challenges the assumptions of some more casual observers, who believe that traditional principles like objectivity, professional independence, an emphasis on trying to verify facts – concepts that some critics who long for a partisan press interpret as professional elitism and arrogance – are being rejected by the public. There is no evidence to support those suppositions.
There is also little evidence to suggest that things have clearly worsened for the press in the last year or so, though they have not improved.
There was no across-the-board decline, for instance, in the believability of news organizations in the last two years, as there had been in earlier periods. When the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press asked whether Americans believed most or all of what they were told by 20 different news outlets, the believability for half of the outlets was either unchanged or had risen.
There was even some good news in the numbers for traditional news media. The percentage of people who thought “news organizations had too much influence on the outcome of the presidential election” dropped by 10 percentage points from four years earlier.1 People also tended to report relying on news organizations for election news more than four years earlier. 2
What appears to be rising now is the charge of bias, largely a case of both sides of the political spectrum seeing the press as unfair to their views.
After the election, the percentage of Americans who thought the press was fair to John Kerry, for instance, dropped by six points from the number who thought the press was fair to the Democrat Al Gore in 2000. The percentage who thought the press unfair to the Democrat rose by seven points – a 13-point shift.
On the other side, the percentage who thought Bush got a fair shake dropped nine points from four years earlier, and the percentage who thought the press unfair to him rose 10 points – a 19-point shift.3
In other words, more of the public thought the press was unfair, but also thought the press had less undue influence on the outcome than four years earlier.
The question of bias also can be fragile and shift with events. In January of 2004, on the eve of the Democratic primaries, there was a rising sentiment that the press was biased in favor of Republicans.4
By spring, when events in Iraq were becoming more negative, surveys suggested rising distrust among Republicans.5
Yet over all there should be little solace here for the press. The long-term trends revealing declining credibility and believability have been established in scores of surveys from several different polling operations asking the questions in a variety of different ways. (Click here to view last year’s discussion on public attitudes) What’s more, for the last two decades Americans’ confidence in the press has lagged precipitously behind that of other institutions.6
It may be that the expectations of the press have sunk enough that they will not sink much further. People are not dismayed by disappointments in the press. They expect them.
That is hardly a base on which to build, particularly as the traditional press, now referred to in the blogosphere by the acronym MSM (for mainstream media), begins to have to contend not only with Republicans who deride it as liberal, but with liberals who deride it as cowed by Republicans, and bloggers who deride it as out of touch.
1. Pew Research Center for The People and the Press, “Voters Liked Campaign 2004, But Too Much Mud Slinging,” Nov. 11, 2004, q. 27.
2. ibid. question 26.
3. ibid. q. 28 and 29.
4. Pew Research Center for The People and The Press, “Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political News Universe; Perceptions of Partisan Bias Seen as Growing, Especially by Democrats,” January 11, 2004, q.38, http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=200.
5.Pew Research Center for The People and The Press, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” June 8 2004.
6. General Social Survey, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, measure of 13 institutions since 1973.