The public’s opinion of the network news divisions is similar to the feelings they have about the news media in general. They feel that news coverage by the networks is less accurate and that generally the networks are not doing as good a job they did 15 to 20 years ago. Some facts and figures:
- The number of people giving ABC, CBS or NBC news the highest mark for believability has fallen from roughly 32 percent in 1985 to 23 percent in 2002.1
- Tom Brokaw is the most trusted anchorman, followed by Peter Jennings and then Dan Rather, mirroring the ratings for the three nightly newscasts.2
- From 1995 to 2002, the number of people giving Network News an A or B for overall news coverage remained relatively steady, but the number giving the networks a D or F increased.3
In addition to these numbers, surveys indicate that the networks are no longer the place viewers go when news is breaking. Increasingly they are turning to cable. A 2003 TV Guide poll found that viewers were more likely to name one of the cable networks as their source for breaking news; CNN was the choice of 31 percent of the public, “more than ABC (8.5 percent), NBC (11 percent) and CBS (6 percent) combined.” Fox News came in second after CNN.4
The Anchor the Public Trusts
When it comes to afamiliar face delivering the news, the networks still have the respect of viewers. According to surveys from TV Guide, all of the network’s primary anchors scored even with or above the highest of their cable counterparts in overall trustworthiness.
The overall winner was NBC’s Tom Brokaw, who was considered the most trusted anchor in news by 22 percent, according to the TV Guide poll. That number may reflect the fact that NBC is the ratings leader in the evening news time slot. While 22 percent may not sound large, consider that is in comparison to all anchors on the air – network or cable. In fact, Brokaw has a fairly sizable lead over his next nearest competitor. ABC’s Peter Jennings and CBS’s Dan Rather are in a virtual tie for second being most trusted by 17 percent and 16 percent, respectively.
Here too, however, there is reason for the networks to be concerned. Fox News’s Shepard Smith, is essentially tied with Jennings and Rather with 16 percent citing him as the most trusted anchor. And Smith is viewed as most trusted by a wide majority among younger viewers 18 to 24 years old.
CNN’s Aaron Brown was voted most trusted by 11 percent of viewers. Brian Williams, who has been identified to become the successor after the 2004 election to Tom Brokaw as anchor of the NBC “Nightly News,” got the lowest marks with 4 percent.5
Paul Friedman, the former executive vice president of news for ABC, notes that over the years, exposure is an important part of what develops trust. Walter Cronkite was trusted in part, in other words, according to this thinking, because he sat in the anchor chair for so long. Time confers trust. Obviously, that alone is not enough. Dan Rather, the longest-sitting anchor, does not rank at the top of this list. Still, it is a factor, and cable anchors, with the number of hours they are on the air, get a lot of exposure.
Getting away from the explicit question of “believability,” the networks are no longer seen as even doing the best job in their news coverage. A survey conducted in summer 2001 by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 56 percent of the public graded the broadcast news divisions an A or a B for their overall news coverage. Cable news, by contrast, was given an A or B by 67 percent of the public. The numbers for network news have changed little from a poll that asked the same question in 1995, when 57 percent of the public gave network news an A or B.6
Grading the Network News Organizations
|Network News, 1995||15||42||31||6||2||4|
|Network News, 2002||18||38||26||10||4||4|
Source: Pew Research Center
By many key traditional measures of journalistic quality – breadth of topics covered, comprehensiveness of sourcing, resources devoted to writing and editing – this study may lead people to conclude that the content of the networks’ newscasts is superior to that of the cable networks. It is unclear whether people responding to the Pew surveys actually prefer the content of cable or like the convenience and immediacy of it and the fact that it comes from a source that is dedicated to the deliver of news and information exclusively.
1. Pew Research Center, “News media’s improved image proves short-lived,” August 4, 2002, Topline, Question 2. Online: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=159
2. J. Max Robins, “Wins of War,” TV Guide, April 7, 2003.
3. Pew Research Center, “America’s Place In The World, III,” August 21-September 5, 2001
4. J. Max Robins, “Wins of War,” TV Guide, April 7, 2003.
5. J. Max Robins, “Wins of War,” TV Guide, April 7, 2003.
6. Pew Research Center, “America’s Place In The World, III,” August 21-September 5, 2001.