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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

About the best that can be said for the public’s view of the press is that the situation is no longer on a steady and general decline.

Americans continue to appreciate the role they expect the press to play, and by some measure that appreciation is even growing.

But when it comes to how the press is fulfilling those responsibilities, the public’s confidence in 2006 according to some indices continued to slip.

And perceptions of bias, and the partisan divide of media, appear to be on the rise.

All that comes, of course, against a background of more than 20 years of growing skepticism about journalists, their companies and the news media as an institution. As we have noted in other reports, since the early 1980s, the public has come to view the news media as less professional, less accurate, less caring, less moral and more inclined to cover up rather than correct mistakes.

The fundamental issue, as we interpreted it in earlier reports, is a disconnection between the public and the press over motive. Journalists see themselves, as Humphrey Bogart put it in the movie “Deadline USA,” as performing “a service for public good.” The public doubts that romantic self-image and thinks journalists are either deluding themselves or lying.

The roots of the disconnection can only be speculated about. The public-opinion data go only so far. But it probably is fair to say that journalists are growing frustrated with the public’s doubt as they struggle against increasingly difficult conditions — lower pay than they might have made in other professions, newsrooms suffering major cutbacks, the buffeting effects of new technology, and depictions in movies and on TV of journalists as exploitative jackals.

The public, in turn, sees a news industry whose corporations increasingly act like other businesses. News outlets in an era of fragmentation seem more prone to produce content designed only to attract a crowd. Alerts of journalistic failures are coming more frequently from politicians, bloggers, mainstream press critics and, with more ways to add their own voice, even citizens themselves. Perhaps most important, with more choices, the public can easily see the limits of what any one news organization is offering.

The structural forces, in other words, may bring with them a new kind of relationship that makes improving the public view of the press difficult.

Sorting through the data from 2006 suggests that, with all this, the public’s view, while skeptical, is nuanced.

The public does appreciate what the press has to do, and in some ways it does so increasingly.

If given a choice, for instance, a growing percentage of Americans would pick press freedom over government censorship. After September 11, a majority leaned the other way (53% to 39%). That number has been reversing to the point that by February 2006 a majority now favored press freedom (56% to 34%).1

A slim majority of Americans also continue to say they enjoy keeping up with the news, and this number, a key indicator of news consumption, has been stable for years.2

And by a large majority people continued to say in 2006 that they prefer getting news from sources that don’t have a particular point of view — 68% — unchanged from two years earlier. Less than a quarter — 23% — wanted to get the news from a source that shared their point of view.3

But on some key measures of performance, public skepticism is still growing.

The number of Americans with a favorable view of the press, for instance, dropped markedly in 2006, from 59% in February, to 48% in July. The metric can be volatile, but that was still one of the lower marks over the course of a decade.4

And in one of the most basic yardsticks of public attitudes, the number of Americans who believe most or all of what news organizations tell them, there were continued declines. Virtually every news outlet saw its number fall in 2006. In a battery that included more than 20 outlets, the only ones that did not decline were Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, people’s local paper, the NewsHour on PBS, People magazine and the National Enquirer.5

In contrast with a decade ago, there are no significant distinctions anymore in the basic believability of major national news organizations. About a quarter of Americans believe most television outlets. Less than one in five believe what they read in print. CNN is not really more trusted than Fox, or ABC than NBC. The local paper is not viewed much differently than the New York Times.

And there are signs, despite the appreciation for an independent press, that the perception of bias, even agenda-setting, is a growing part of the concern.

Among those who feel that their daily newspaper has become worse, for instance, the number who blame bias, and particularly liberal bias, has grown from 19% in 1996 to 28% in 2006.6

Overall, Republicans express less confidence than Democrats in the credibility of nearly every major news outlet, with the exception of Fox News. Yet that partisan gap is narrowing, and that is because Democrats are beginning to doubt the believability of more news outlets, and their suspicion of bias is growing too.

One big change is that more people now feel they can get what traditional journalism offers from the Internet, and that, too, is a challenge for the press, one that may be accelerating faster than declining trust.

In the end, there is no sense that the public view of the press changed markedly in 2006. Such shifts are almost always evolutionary. But there are reminders in the data of the continuing sense that journalism matters, and continuing doubts about whether it is being practiced in a way people want.

That suggests that allegiances could switch to new outlets fairly quickly. And more competition, as it has for the last two decades, may breed still more skepticism.