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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The public continues to be troubled about the news media.

It would be an overstatement to suggest, however, that the country has reached some new crisis point, or even that public confidence in the press is on a worsening downward spiral.

In 2005, Americans registered more censure of the press in some areas, including heightened concerns about bias, criticism of the military, and whether the news media really protect democracy.

But by other measures — among them whether the press is professional and moral — American are more confident than they were before September 11, 2001, or in aftermath of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Overall, the percentage of Americans with a generally favorable view of the news media is rising. And the vast majority of Americans continue to support the idea that the press should be a neutral judge.

Over the longer term, to be sure, the general trend in public attitudes has been downward. We reviewed the data in our original report two years ago, but since the early 1980s Americans have come to view the news media as less professional, less accurate, less caring and less moral. Pollster Andrew Kohut has concluded, summarizing the data, that Americans increasingly believe that news organizations act out of their own economic self-interest, and journalists themselves act to advance their own careers.

In our inaugural report, we suggested that the heart of that declining trust was a “disconnect” over motive. Journalists see themselves as acting on the public’s behalf. The public believes they are either lying or deluding themselves. There was further evidence of that skepticism in 2005. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 75% of Americans believed that news organizations were more concerned with “attracting the biggest audience,” while only 19% thought they cared more about “informing the public.”1

The public also increasingly sees the press as slanted. Nearly three quarters of Americans (72%) in the summer of 2005 saw the press as favoring one side, up from 66% two years earlier. And 60% saw the press as politically biased, up from 53% in 2003. Republicans and conservatives are even more prone to feel this way than Democrats. 2

This is an area that journalists have tended to dismiss over the years. Yet different surveys of journalists also suggest that while the preponderance of news people see themselves as moderate, the percentage who identify themselves as liberal is growing, while the percentage who see themselves as conservative is shrinking.

The percentage of people who believe that criticism of the military weakens American defenses has been rising as well, and in 2005 reached its highest point (47%) since 1985 (then 31%).3

But the declines in public confidence are hardly across the board. While esteem is still down from the mid 1980s, more Americans see the press as moral than in recent years (43%, up from 39% in 2002). More see the press as willing to admit mistakes (28% vs. 23% in 2002). More see the press as “highly professional” (59% vs. 49% in 2002).4

And while there is doubt about scrutiny of the military, there is enduring and even slightly growing support for the press as a watchdog over politicians. More Americans (60%) believe a critical press “keeps leaders from doing things that shouldn’t done” than did in 2001 and 2003 (when the number was 54%).5

The public is also more inclined than a few years ago to favor the press’s right to report on stories that it considers of national interest over the government’s need to censor to protect national security. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, only 39% of Americans thought it was more important for the press to be able to report, while 53% favored government security. By February 2006, the numbers had reversed, with 56% favoring reporting to 34% more concerned with government security.6

In an age when it has become popular to believe that Americans are gravitating to partisan media outlets like talk radio, the data suggest, to the contrary, enduring support for an independent press. In 2005, roughly 7 out of 10 Americans (68%) believed the press should be “neutral” rather than “pro-American,” even in covering the war on terrorism. That support for the idea of a neutral the press has remained consistent since the Pew surveys first began asking the questions in the early 1990s.7

Indeed, stepping back from concern over the details and looking at another level, there is even a glimmer of some larger optimism in the numbers of late.

Throughout 2005, there were signs that the percentage of Americans who had a favorable general view of the press was rising. In December 2004, some 43% had a favorable view. In February 2006, that number was 59%. Interestingly, that approval rating is also rising across party lines (though Republicans generally are less favorable than Democrats or Independents.8

That is a number, and an area of inquiry for researchers, worth watching. On the specifics, there are worries, even on core questions like believability. But despite the criticisms there is a growing sense of an underlying appreciation for what the press does.

No magic formula seems embedded in the numbers. Some of them rise and fall with the news. During 2005, the press helped Americans know about Hurricane Katrina, the Asian Tsunami, secret security prisons abroad, and later, in early 2006, about the Bush Administration’s conducting domestic wire tapping without first getting court warrants. Whether that performance influenced the approval numbers is difficult to know.

What does seem consistent is that the public apparently appreciates the idea that the press is aspiring to work in the public interest, trying to get it right, trying to be aggressive. People have serious doubts about whether journalists live up to those ideals, and they are disposed to think that money, rather than the public good, drives press behavior.

Footnotes

1. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, conducted in association with the Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Public More Critical of Press, but Goodwill Persists,” June 26, 2005.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Bush a Drag on Republican Midterm Prospects,” February 9, 2006.

7. Ibid.

8. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Bush a Drag on Republican Midterm Prospects” February 9, 2006.