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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

There is an enormous amount of data that has been collected over the years about public attitudes toward the newspaper industry, more perhaps than for any other medium. Taken together, the survey data reveal four key trends.

Trust: Believability and Credibility

The history and enduring nature of newspapers do not, in the end, give the medium an edge when it comes to public perception. Asked a number of different ways, citizens continuously give newspapers worse marks than other mediums, despite the sense by most print journalists to the contrary.

In general, Americans give newspapers lower marks for believability and credibility than they do for local television news, or any of the three network newscasts and CNN. And this has been the case for decades. NBC’s “Dateline,” a prime-time television newsmagazine that tends to focus on softer and sometimes more tabloid-oriented subjects, rates nearly as high as newspapers.

Media Outlets Ranked by Believability, May 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
*Survey qu: Please rate how much you think you can believe … Includes ratings of 3 and 4 on a scale of 1 (not believable) to 4 (believable).

While there are various surveys tracking this, one of the latest, a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, found that a majority of Americans tend to believe their daily newspaper – 59% gave it the highest two ratings on a scale of 1 to 4 in May of 2002. Nevertheless, this is lower than the roughly two-thirds of respondents who rated the various television news categories this way. A full 66 percent gave believability ratings to NBC and CNN, 68 percent to ABC and local news, and 64 percent for CBS (“Dateline” received top ratings from 58 percent).1

(National Public Radio and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer appear lower on the believability scale, but that is only because larger percentages of Americans haven’t heard of or say they can’t rate them, 29% for NPR, and 49% for the NewsHour).

The only news medium that newspapers seemed to surpass when it comes to believability is print magazines. Just more than half deem Time (53 percent), Newsweek (51 percent) and US News and World Report (51 percent) believable. They also still hold and edge over Fox (53 percent) and MSNBC (55 percent).2

The picture looks even worse for national newspapers included in the Pew data, as it has in past surveys. According to Pew, the slimmest of majorities (51 percent) believe USA Today, while 25 percent indicated a lack of believability and 23 percent said they could not rate it). The same 51 percent believed The Wall Street Journal, with 15 percent not believing in it and 34 percent not being able to rate it. The New York Times was not included in the survey.3

Some of this may have to do with the way people react to news they can see versus what they read, and their attitudes towards local media they know versus national media they are not as familiar with. If so, there may be little newspapers can do about their relative believability versus other media. Perhaps more worrisome for newspapers, however, is the trend line. The percentage of people who rate their daily newspaper as believable has dropped from 80% in 1985 to 59% in 2002. Other media, including network and local TV, have seen similar declines. Here, the NewsHour, NPR, and 60 Minutes stand out for not declining in believability.

Newspapers also have some reason for concern when pollsters turn from asking about believability to asking about quality. When Pew asked, in January 2002, who has been doing the best job of covering the news lately, only 10 percent of respondents named newspapers, compared with 38 percent for cable television, 16 percent for network television news and 13 percent for local television news.4

This could be chalked up to a number of factors – the appeal of visual media generally and the increasing availability and convenience of television and online news versus print among them. Yet this finding may also reflect something else. Perhaps since September 11th cable television news, whatever its weaknesses, was the best source of international news generally available in most U.S. communities. Local newspapers, with their focus on local news, were not satisfying reader demand for more news about the war on terror. Though newspapers have not ranked especially well on this question, this still represented a noticeable decline. In January 1999, 13 percent named newspapers as doing the best job, and 14 percent said so in January 1996.

The Readership Institute at Northwestern University has found somewhat more promising results. In a 2000 survey, 11 percent of newspaper readers said their local newspaper was excellent and 39 percent said it was very good, with 35 percent rating it as good. Just 15 percent said it was fair or poor. Also, nearly three-quarters of readers (73 percent) indicated that they would recommend the local paper to a friend. Only 7 percent said they would not recommend it.5

The research on public attitudes also suggests the nature of newspapers’ appeal and perhaps enduring qualities. People do not tend to turn to newspapers when news is breaking, but they go there later on for a sense of what to make of things.

The percentage of people who name newspapers as their primary news source tends to drop during major breaking news events, such as September 11th or the Iraq war. Only 11 percent cited newspapers as their primary source for news during the terrorist attacks. Just 24 percent saw newspapers as their primary source for the Iraq war in March 2003.6

However, as the initial shock of these events subsides, newspapers regain importance. More people began citing newspapers as a main source after the end of combat in Iraq. By October 2003, the latest numbers available, 50 percent said that newspapers were their primary source of news. That is the highest percentage of people citing newspapers as their main source since 1996, making it second only behind television.7

This upsurge is probably impossible to explain right now. One reason could be that changes in the nature of the content of cable are pulling people back to print (See Cable TV content). Another possibility is that the nature of the news in the latter months of 2003 was suited to newspapers. Understanding why the United States had gotten into the war, trying to piece together the situation in Iraq and the soundness of Bush administration policies – perhaps these are questions that newspapers may help people sort out more efficiently than turning to fast-breaking cable television or abbreviated local news. It will be helpful to see if this upsurge continues or changes with events.

Another study on public response to coverage of the war, this one by the Readership Institute, offers further clues as to what people like about newspaper versus other media. The study found that during the war in Iraq in March and April 2003, people said they liked the editorial and opinion pages of newspapers, and they also liked papers for giving them a local perspective on the war. The depth and balance that newspapers might provide did not register as strong assets for print in the study, nor did the suggestion that newspapers had more expert sources or dug more aggressively for the news than television might.8

Newspaper Believability Over Time
Surveys: 1985 to 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
* Survey qu.: ’’Please rate how much you think you can believe the daily newspaper you are most familiar with.’’

Which way is trust heading? There are clear signs of decline, but for all of the news media. Since 1985, believability of the daily newspaper has fallen by a quarter, from 80 percent in 1985 to 59 percent in 2002, according to Pew data. The three television network news divisions and local news also saw significant drops from 1985, when they were all above 80 percent for believability.9

Believability of News Outlets Over Time
Surveys: 1985 to 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
*Survey qu: Please rate how much you think you can believe … Includes ratings of 3 and 4 on a scale of 1 (not believable) to 4 (believable).

Behind the Credibility Gap

What is driving what some have called a “credibility crisis?” In part it is a cultural divide. People think newspaper journalists are isolated and out of touch. In part, the credibility crisis is a disconnect over motive. Journalists think they are working in the public interest. The public thinks they sensationalize and report articles to make money.

This cultural divide is seen in various numbers. Some of them have to do with a sense that journalists are isolated. In a major 1999 survey conducted for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, for instance, a majority of the public, 53 percent, viewed the press as “out-of-touch with mainstream Americans.” And 78 percent thought that journalists were more interested in the interests of their editors than their readers.10

Some of the numbers deal with the attitude of journalists. Two-thirds of the public viewed journalists as more cynical than people in other professions, according to the ASNE credibility study.11

The other part of the crisis has to do with motive. More than half of those polled, 59 percent, told the ASNE study that newspapers were more concerned with making profits than with the serving the public interest. And half thought that advertisers swayed coverage. Pew surveys over the years similarly find a decline in the sense that journalists are serving the public interest.

This sense of lack of professionalism and sensationalizing to sell papers was clearly seen following the scandal in 2003 at The New York Times, particularly the news that the reporter Jayson Blair had engaged in extensive fabrication. The Times, which prides itself on respectability, took heat for the incident, which resulted in the resignations of the executive editor, Howell Raines, and the managing editor, Gerald Boyd.

But one of the saddest revelations to come from the scandal was that many people thought such unethical conduct was typical of newspapers. Nearly a quarter (22 percent) told a Pew survey in the summer of 2003 they thought that the practices engaged in by Blair happened frequently, while 36 percent said they thought it happened occasionally. And most of the public (58 percent) thinks journalists do not care about complaints of inaccuracies (only 35 percent think members of the press do care).12 The credibility problem can be seen in polling data going back nearly 20 years. It is hardly limited to print journalism. Some of it clearly tracks the decline in public trust in all institutions, and thus is more cultural than something that the newspapers or even journalists generally can do anything about. But not all of it. And here is where newspapers can react.


1.Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “News Media’s Improved Image Proves Short-Lived,”, August 4, 2002, Qu. 9

2.On the other end of the scale, 9 percent said that they could not believe their local newspaper (they gave it a 1 on a 1 to 4 scale); 25 percent gave it a 2. Thus, over a third of people do not believe their newspaper, which is much higher than those not believing cable or network news. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3 percent.

3. A 2001 survey by the Online Publishers Association asked about the credibility of national newspaper in general and reported that 80 percent found national newspapers credible compared to 83 percent for cable and just 68 percent for local newspapers. Online News Association, “Digital Journalism Credibility Study,” 2002, Respondents were asked to rank the credibility of news in different media on a scale of 1 (Not credible at all) to 5 (Extremely credible). Answers of 4 or 5 were considered as denoting credibility, 3s was considered neutral, and 1s or 2s were considered as not credible.

4. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Unusually High Interest In Bush’s State Of The Union,” January 17, 2002, Qu. 9

5.Readership Institute, “Characteristics of Subscribers, Single-Copy Buyers and Passalongs,” January 2003, p. 8

6. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “President’s Criticism of Media Resonates, But Iraq Unease Grows,” October 21, 2003, Qu. 8. Respondents were allowed to name two media.

7.Ibid. Respondents were allowed to name two media.

8. Readership Institute, “US Daily Readership during the War with Iraq,” May 2003, p.13. During the war in March and April, readers were asked to rank statements about their reading experience on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). An average was then calculated with 3 as the midpoint. Higher than 3 indicates agreement, and lower than 3 shows disagreement. A “thoughtful editorial and opinion section” and “gave me a local perspective on the war” both received a 3.6 average, which shows agreement. People were neutral (3.0) on newspapers covering all sides of the story and disagreed that newspaper reporters “dig harder than TV reporters to get the news” (a 2.7 rating), and that newspapers “use more expert sources than television” (a 2.6) rating.

9. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “News Media’s Improved Image Proves Short-Lived,” August 4, 2002, Qu. 9

10. American Society of Newspaper Editors, “Examining Our Credibility: Perspectives oft the Public and the Press,” 1999,

11. Journalists themselves echo this view: 84 percent see themselves as being more cynical. Despite this cynicism, 69 percent of journalists think they were using their power to “protect the underdog;” a view held by 53 percent of the public.

12 .Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Strong Opposition to Media Cross-Ownership Emerges,” July 13, 2003, Qu 25 and 26