Network Public Attitudes
|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
There is nothing simple about the relationship between the public and the network news outlets. A year ago we noted that public attitudes did not always correlate with use of media. People who said that they distrusted news organizations watched no more or less than those who said they trusted them. More recent survey data reinforce this complicated, indeed conflicting, relationship.
The basic picture is this: While viewership of the nightly newscasts is down, survey data show residual goodwill toward the fundamentals of the network newscast brands, particularly the evening programs. People see them as factual and have a generally favorable impression of the news divisions. Add to that the fact, noted last year, that the basic audience for network news, aside from being old, was geographically and ideologically diverse, and the data suggest that if the network news can make its delivery system more favorable and more modern, the potential audience for this old medium may be there.
To get a sense of the complexity, consider that the overall perception of bias in the media is rising. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in June 2005 found that 60% of Americans felt the press was politically biased. More than 70% believed that the press tended to favor one side of a political debate over another. Fully 40% felt that news organizations were “too critical of America.”1 That is up 7 percentage points from when Pew Research asked this question in July 2003.
But there is some evidence that public response to such an inquiry may be directly influenced by cultural events. For example, in early September 2001 fully 36% of those surveyed said they believed the press was too critical of America . That number dropped 19 points to 17% in November 2001, presumably in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. The number hovered in the mid-thirties when the question was asked in the summers of 2002 and 2003, as the war in Afghanistan continued and the war in Iraq began, before climbing to 40% in June 2005.
The primary audience for network news also believes the news divisions are more interested in ratings generally than they are in informing the public. Fully two thirds of Americans (66%) who said network television was their main source of news also said they believed that news organizations cared more about attracting the biggest audience than they did about keeping the public informed (28%).
While troubling, those scores were actually better than those given by people who said their main source of news was either CNN or Fox News. Fully 76% said that audience numbers were more important to CNN and fully 78% said the same about Fox News.
Indeed, a lower percentage of network news viewers (66%) believe network news cares more about attracting bigger audiences than viewers were said they preferred newspapers (74%), radio (77%) or Internet (85%).
If a majority of Americans feel the press is biased and in it for audience ratings rather than informing the public, why are they still tuning in? According to data from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, fully 74% of those surveyed indicated that their main source of news is television.
Looking specifically at network news, the percentage of Americans who say they have a generally favorable opinion of network news has declined just 1% between 2001 and 2005. In 2005, fully 75% of those surveyed expressed a favorable opinion. While declining less than other media sources, network television’s favorability score is still lower than those for daily newspapers (80%) and local and cable TV news (both 79%).2
Even though viewers may not like how network news people are presenting the news, the majority also believe they are providing their audiences with the facts.
More than half (53%) of Americans rated network evening news as being mostly factual, while 31% believed it to be mostly opinion. Compared to a variety of other sources, the evening newscasts fell just below local television news (61%) for being factual, but well ahead of cable news (45%) and national newspapers (45%). The network morning shows did not fare as well. Just 39% saw the morning shows as mostly offering the facts, not much more than the 33% who consider the morning shows mostly opinion.3
The data suggest that there are other things to be learned here. Why do Americans who have stopped watching network news say they have done so? How do the young, who generally are not watching, view the networks, and would they gravitate to the news divisions if they were offering their product in a bigger way online, on PDAs, on phones and other delivery systems? How do Americans feel about what is offered by the networks as opposed to cable news? Do they notice that the two products are quite different?
Those questions are missing from the knowledge we have now. And they are all questions that will become more pressing as the networks, newspapers, and cable increasingly compete in the converged digital battleground.