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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute

When it comes to attitudes about the press, 2003 painted a pretty grim picture of low and declining trust in the media over all and especially in newspapers. Over the last year, those trends have only been reinforced. And one positive sign, that people tended to wander back to print as major breaking news subsides, no longer holds true.

In 2004 just half of those surveyed, according to Pew Research Center data, ranked the newspaper they are most familiar with as being believable (1 or 2 on a scale of 1 to 4). This is down nine percentage points from 2002, and 13 points from 1998. A scant 17% gave their newspaper the highest believability rating, a 1 on the scale, down from 27% in 1998.1

Newspaper Believability Over Time
Surveys: 1985 to 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, ’’Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Survey,’’ June 8, 2004
Survey qu Please rate how much you think you can believe the daily newspaper you are most familiar with.

National newspapers, despite their size and resources, rated no better than local. Believability ratings for The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal were all below 50%. Believability for most network and cable outlets is on the decline as well, but still falls somewhere between 54% and 65%.2

Media Outlets Ranked by Believability, 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, ’’Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Survey,’’ June 8, 2004
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).

The most significant shift over the last year is that newspapers are losing more readers during major news events and are not pulling them back when events subside. What we have seen in the past is a predilection for television during big news stories but then a return to newspapers once the big news event dies down. The 2004 data suggest not only an increased gravitation to television for the big story but a suggestion that the draw may remain even for everyday news.

In March 2003, newspapers were the primary source of news about the war in Iraq3 for 24% of respondents. In March of 2004, the big story was the presidential election. Just 17% named newspapers as their primary source for news. Television, on the other hand, was named by close to half of respondents (47%). Two in ten (21%) respondents did volunteer that they got most of their news from a “combination” of outlets, which could include some newspaper reading.4

Primary Source of Campaign Information, 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll, ”Voters Still Evenly Divided,’’ March 25, 2004
qu: Of the following, where do you get most of your information about the presidential candidates?

And the implications forthe fondness for television in election coverage may be even more significant, since elections are not as naturally tied to video as are stories like the Iraq war.

In addition, Americans displayed a desire for pictures over words. Most (55%) said they prefer pictures over words while just 40% prefer reading or hearing about events.5

Additional data from Arbitron/Edison Media Research adds fuel to the sense that newspapers are second fiddle to television for news. When asked which medium a is “MOST essential” to their lives, only 11% of survey respondents said newspapers, compared to 39% for TV, 26% for radio and 20% for the Internet.6

What’s more, the picture doesn’t look much better among the more highly educated. Among those with a college degree, 13% report newspapers as the most essential medium, not much higher than the 11% overall.7

The only positive sign for newspapers may be that people want more than headlines. Four in ten want thoughtful analysis, something that the condensed time frame of network television and the format of cable often do not accommodate. Another 37% want headlines plus some facts. Just 18% say they want only headlines.8

As on-demand news, images and audio become more a part of everyday news consumption, newspaper companies may have a difficult time convincing people to choose their publications over other media – especially during breaking news. In the end, quality, consistency and depth of coverage may be newspapers’ best selling points.

While many newspapers pride themselves on the depth of their information, recent scandals at leading newspapers have challenged the industry’s credibility.

The Credibility Conundrum

Credibility has been the subject of much study and hand-wringing within the industry for several decades now. It was the topic of a major research project of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), beginning in 1997 and concluding with publication of a credibility handbook in 2001. More recently the Associated Press Managing Editors persuaded 50 of its member papers to hold “credibility roundtables” with citizens in their communities.

The somewhat abstract problem got a human face in 2003 when The New York Times found that a reporter, Jayson Blair, had frequently plagiarized or fabricated material for his stories. Another Times reporter, Rick Bragg, was asked to resign over so-called “toe-touch” datelines – passing quickly through a town but constructing a story from an uncredited stringer’s file.

In 2004, The Times got company when USA Today found that its star roving foreign correspondent, Jack Kelley, had fabricated some of his most dramatic stories, notably a first-person account of a café bombing in Israel. More than a dozen reporters around the country had been fired for lesser instances of plagiarism.

As newspapers set about writing more detailed ethics codes and smoking out offenders, they could take some cold comfort from surveys, which suggested that the Blair and Kelley incidents didn’t seem to move the needle.9 Of course, credibility was abysmal in the first place.

Perhaps a more material consideration is that the majority in surveys who say they don’t find newspapers believable represent a coalition of complaints – everything from thinking many stories are inaccurate or incomplete to claiming a paper is politically biased or too negative to business, government or a given town.

The ASNE credibility handbook adds additional criticisms: a sense that the paper is inaccessible or out of touch with its community, and not seeing one’s concerns – especially those of minorities and young people – represented in print.10 Academic studies of credibility treat it as a “multidimensional” concept including at least believability, accuracy, trustworthiness, bias and completeness.11 Some amplify the list to include sensationalism and a half-dozen additional items.12

Add it up, and the surveys probably DON’T mean readers think their paper will misreport the results of the Super Bowl. But looking at the picture over all, there is a one-two-three punch of bad news for newspapers:


1. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (Washington, DC). “Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Survey.” Published June 8, 2004.

2. Ibid

3. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (Washington, DC). “Public Confidence in War Effort Falters.” Published March 25, 2003.Available on line at:

4. Dana Blanton, “Voters Still Evenly Divided.” Fox News, March 25, 2004.

5. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (Washington, DC): “Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized.” Published November 5, 2003. Available on line at:

6. Arbitron/Edison Media Research (New York, New York). “Internet 9: The Media and Entertainment World of Online Consumers.” Published 2002. Available on line at:

7. Ibid

8. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (Washington, DC). “Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Survey.” Published June 8, 2004.

9. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (Washington, DC). “Strong Opposition to Media Cross-Ownership Emerges.” Published July 13, 2003.

10. American Society of Newspaper Editors, Newspaper Credibility Handbook. Published July 19, 2002. Available on line at:

11. Philip Meyer. “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age.” (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004). Meyer discusses alternative definitions and their history, pages 65-82. He expresses some skepticism about the stability of any measure, since scores at a given newspaper seem to be affected by temporal events like aggressive coverage of a scandal.

12. School of Communication, University of Miami (Coral Gables, Florida). “The Credibility of Newspapers, Television News, and Online News.” Rasha A. Abdulla et al. Presented to the Mass Communication and Society Division, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, annual convention, Miami Beach, Florida, August 9, 2002. Available on line at: