|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
Americans’ attitudes toward network news present something of a paradox. Though viewership continues to decline, the public continues to show high levels of trust and goodwill, particularly toward the evening newscasts.
Research also shows that the evening-news viewers are heavier news consumers than cable and local-news viewers and tend to follow the news more closely than viewers of other sorts of TV news. Coupled with the relatively high levels of trust, those attributes may bode well for networks’ aspirations of reaching more —and especially younger — Americans online and on wireless devices.
In general, the network evening news broadcasts, along with the news magazine 60 Minutes, are among the most trusted news organizations. In 2006, they trailed only the local TV newscast, CNN and Fox as the most believable sources of news, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. 1
Furthermore, the evening newscasts scored even higher on a Pew believability scale than institutions that have been largely free of scandal or accusations of politically charged coverage, most notably the AP and C-Span. Even CBS News, which was accused of liberal bias in the wake of the Memogate fiasco, remains a relatively trusted news organization.
Not all the news is good. Believability for all media organizations continues to fall. “Since the mid-1980s, Americans have become increasingly skeptical of what they see, hear, and read in the media, and almost no major news outlet has escaped this trend,” Pew notes.2
Indeed, there has been a downward trend for all news organizations over the last 20 years and network news is no exception. According to survey research, the percentage of Americans who gave ABC News the highest believability rating fell eight percentage points in just the last six years. At CBS News, it fell seven percentage points and at NBC News, the decline was six percentage points.3
Despite those negative trends, Americans report being most interested in the type of news traditionally associated with the network newscasts, even surpassing weather, sports and entertainment programming. In a survey conducted in June 2006, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Americans were most interested in headlines, features, and current events, including coverage of the government (23%), followed by local and crime stories (20%), international news (15%) and then political and election news (12%). Trailing these subjects were the war in Iraq (10%), sports (7%), business and financial news (5%), and then entertainment and cultural programming (3 percent). 4
Finally, for Katie Couric and CBS, there was both good and bad news. In September 2006, Couric was a considerably more recognizable figure than either NBC’s Brian Williams or ABC’s Charlie Gibson, according to Pew findings. Fully two thirds (66%) were able to offer an impression of Couric, compared to fewer than half who could do so for Gibson (49%) or Williams (47%).5
But views of her were considerably more mixed as well. When asked to describe each anchor, “good” was clearly the most frequently used word to describe Couric, though she received the lowest number who said “good,” (57%), with Gibson the highest (71%) and Williams in between (65%).6
And respondents, when they volunteered other terms to describe the anchors, were more likely to use words associated with personality and style with Couric than with the two male anchors. For instance, popular terms to characterize Couric, the first solo female anchor on network television, included “perky,” “cute,” “nice,” “energetic,” “bubbly,” and “fluffy.” Conversely, frequent descriptions of Gibson and Williams were “informed,” “informative,” “knowledgeable,” and “professional.” Furthermore, a much larger percentage of Americans labeled Couric “liberal” than the other anchors, Pew found.7