Skip to Content View Previous Reports

Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

By Robert Ruby and the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Ask the public for its opinion of the press, and the responses are chastening.

Most Americans believe the news media are politically biased, that their stories are often inaccurate and that journalists do not care about the people they report on.

And in 2007, the public’s overall view of the press remained by many measures as negative as in the recent past and notably worse than in the mid-1980s.

There are nuances to the public’s skepticism. People continue to like what they actually watch, read and know best. They dislike and distrust the hypothetical monolith – the behemoth called the news media.

What is growing is the extent to which partisanship is creating distinct audiences. It has reached the point where ideology is now as strong an indicator of an individual’s likes and dislikes about the press as any other basic demographic measure. Increasingly, there are Republican views of the news media and Democratic views, and they differ sharply. Political independents have their own distinct attitudes about the media – and they grew more negative in 2007.

This divide was evident in views of coverage of the war in Iraq. Democrats express greater confidence in the media’s performance there than do Republicans.

But the partisan divide is not as sharp when it comes to coverage of the presidential campaign. Nearly everyone tended to think there was too much early handicapping of the race, too little coverage of so-called minor candidates and too little coverage of what the candidates were saying. And those views could deepen given that so much of the press’ early handicapping proved wrong — the writing off of John McCain and Mike Huckabee, the love affair with Fred Thompson and the advance anointing of Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani.

Another worry is that the Internet news audience is particularly skeptical — and this is a group that is growing, is younger and is better educated than the general population. It is the press’ future base. This audience is especially critical of the mainstream media’s fairness and accuracy.

And the rise of blogging has added to this perception. Bloggers on both the right and left acidly criticized mainstream news outlets for their coverage of politics in 2007 and the war in Iraq. Newspapers, magazines and television duly reported the bloggers’ criticisms. (One wire service headline declared, “The blogs flunk the media again.”1 Online editors meanwhile apologized for instances of inaccurate reporting on their Web sites.

One other factor probably added to the mix: the host of growing problems in newsrooms.

In every part of the industry, journalists themselves experienced the turmoil generated by another year of reorganizations and cutbacks. New owners took control of several major news organizations, including Dow Jones & Co. (publisher of the Wall Street Journal) and the Tribune Company (publisher of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday and other major newspapers). Anyone paying attention to what the press reported about itself could have detected the insecurity. As the industry is buffeted by new technology and as audiences fragment further, some critics portray the turbulence as confirmation of what they see as the press’ failings.

Nearly every news organization seemed anxious to revise its playbook. The press – the fragmented, challenged industry that regularly reported on threats to its own prosperity – wanted to expand here, contract there, master social networking, become a community bulletin board, serve as a national forum, list the financial contributors to every presidential campaign, shrink stock tables, expand a broadcast, close a news bureau, expand a Web team, merge copy desks, reorganize the ad sales team.

An important question for the coming year is whether that turmoil is seen by an already skeptical public as panic or openness to change. The news media may risk seeming like just another industry anxious about its products, its customers and its future.

General Trust

The 20-year trend of public dissatisfaction with the press showed few signs of reversing course in 2007.

Majorities of Americans continued to say that journalists are often inaccurate (55%), do not care about the people they report on (53%), are biased (55%), one-sided (66%) and try to cover up their mistakes (63%). Those sentiments, all more prevalent than in the 1980s, have become entrenched.2

There was similarly no real movement in the slim pluralities who believe the press is moral (46%) or protects democracy (44%), again lower figures than a two decades ago.3

Persistent Criticisms of the Press
Percent of Survey Respondents

July 1985 Feb 1999 Sep 2001 Nov 2001 July 2002 July 2003 June 2005 July 2007
News Organizations…
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
Moral
Immoral
54
13
40
38
40
34
53
23
39
36
45
32

43
35

46
32
Protect democracy
Hurt democracy
54
23
45
38
46
32
60
19
50
29
52
28
47
33
44
36
Get facts straight
Stories often Inaccurate
55
34
37
58
35
57
46
45
35
56
36
56
36
56
39
53
Careful to avoid bias
Politically biased
36
45
31
56
26
59
35
47
26
59
29
53
28
60
31
55
Highly professional
Not professional
72
11
52
32
54
27
73
12
49
31
62
24
59
25
66
22

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Views of Press Values and Performance: 1985-2007,” August 9, 2007

There may be some comfort for the press in knowing that even fewer people think favorably of other organizations. More people have positive opinions of their daily newspaper than of the Supreme Court. Substantially more people think well of network news programs (71%) than of Congress (45%), the Democratic Party (55%) or the Republican Party (42%).4

And some of the declining trust is associated with views of the institution rather than of a single news media company or journalist.

Most people say they dislike Congress, yet most individual members of that body consistently win re-election. Similarly, people dislike the media but like the media they pay attention to.

But these criticisms of the press have become part of a larger suspicion of the press, and believability of the press is lower than in the 19990s.

No major category was exempt from the public’s broad criticism in 2007, but cable television news and network television news have suffered the greatest recent loss of good will. From 2005 to 2007, the percentage of people who held a favorable opinion about cable and network television news dropped 4 percentage points (down to 75% for cable, 71% for the networks).5

At first glance, major national newspapers such as the New York Times fare worse than television. Only 60% of the public has a favorable opinion of national papers, but the erosion of support has slowed; the latest figure is a drop of only 1 percentage point in the last two years.6 And survey data leaves unclear how many of the people offering opinions actually see those newspapers.

There are a few bright spots in the data in 2007, and these seem to offer hints of the media’s value — and perhaps to how the press might work to rebuild its bond with the public.

More Americans than in the five previous years regard the press as highly professional. In a 2007 Pew Research Center survey, the figure rose to 66%, up from 59% in 2005.7

By nearly 2 to 1, Americans still believe in the watchdog role of the press in keeping leaders from doing things they shouldn’t.

And a larger percentage than was the case five years earlier believes the press is careful to avoid political bias.

But a majority still considers the press biased (55% in 2007; 59% in 2002).8

And the press has done nothing to regain the momentary surge in confidence it enjoyed in the weeks following the September 11 attacks on the U.S.9

The data suggest the public most trusted the press – believed it professional, accurate, generally unbiased, even moral – when the public depended on it most for information and perhaps reassurance.

Liking the Familiar

Despite their general distrust, however, people like the news media that they seem to know best, although even these numbers are falling. About 80% of Americans have a positive opinion of their local television news and of their local daily newspaper. The public also does not always endorse the story choices made by editors. In particular, a substantial part of the public (40%) believes celebrity news gets too much attention. No other topic is cited by even half as many people as getting too much play.10

Many people also say they want a different kind of reporting on presidential politics, at least based on what they saw and read during the early months of the current campaign. A Pew Research Center survey found that about 8 in 10 people wanted more coverage of the candidates’ positions on issues. Our analysis of campaign coverage during the first five months of 2007 found that most stories focused, instead, on political fundraising, tactics and polling.

People were well aware they were not finding the coverage they wanted. A majority rated campaign coverage as only fair or poor.11

Television

In general, news programs on network, cable and local broadcast television retain an enviable position in terms of public trust.

For national and international news, most Americans turn on their televisions. About 6 out of 10 people say television is their main source for that information. For this type of news, the public by a small margin favors the networks over cable.12

But usage patterns are changing, and they bring changes in attitudes about news organizations. Consider, for instance, differences between adults and school-age children in their news habits. Most children, like most of their parents, turn to television as the main source of national and foreign news, although the children do not watch as much of it. Among that younger generation, the percentage that relies on television is 55% for the children and 60% for adults.13

In second place – for adults as well as children – is the Internet. One survey found newspapers tied with the Internet, while others place newspapers third. We do not know how many of those Internet users are, in fact, clicking on Web sites maintained by television news organizations or by newspapers.

Among young people, the Internet also is gaining over television as a source of presidential campaign news. Six in 10 of those 18 to 29 years old cite television as one of their two main sources for election news, down from 75% in 2004. Over that time, the proportion citing the Internet has more than doubled – from 21% to 46%.14

For all parts of the television news industry, another possible warning sign is the diminished star power of on-air journalists. That may seem counter-intuitive, since many anchors, correspondents and talk show hosts surely qualify as celebrities; their employers advertise them as brand names. But none have as much prominence in the role of a journalist as did some of their counterparts in the mid-1980s. Compared to then, a smaller part of the public can name the journalist they admire most. None are named by more than 5% of the public.

America’s Favorite Journalists: Then and Now
Percent of Survey Respondents

2007
%
1985
%
Katie Couric
5
Dan Rather
11
Bill O’Reilly
4
Walter Cronkite
6
Charles Gibson
3
Peter Jennings
6
Dan Rather
2
Tom Brokaw
4
Tom Brokaw
2
Barbara Walters
3
Brian Williams
2
Ted Koppel
2
Anderson Cooper
2
Other
33
Jon Stewart
2
None/Don’t Know/Refused
35
Other
24
None/Don’t Know/Refused
44

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Today’s Journalists Less Prominent,” March 8, 2007.
Note: Figures for 2007 total more than 100% because respondents could name more than one journalist.

In 1987, Dan Rather as anchor of the CBS Evening News was named by 11% of the public as their favorite journalist. In 2007, CBS anchor Katie Couric topped the list, but with only 5%. She was closely followed by Fox’s talk show host Bill O’Reilly and ABC news anchor Charles Gibson. The top 10 also included Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s satiric news-related Daily Show.15

Attitudes of Internet Users

Roughly a quarter of all Americans now get news on a daily basis from the Internet, a figure bolstered by half the U.S. population now having broadband at home.16

This audience is more critical of traditional news sources than other Americans. About 4 out of 10 have unfavorable opinions of national newspapers (43%), network television news (39%) and cable television news (38%).

Three out of 10 in the Internet news audience have a low opinion of their local television news (32%) and their local newspaper (29%). Those, too, are higher percentages than among people who depend on traditional media.17

For traditional news organizations, the problem may not be as ominous as it seems. At least some Internet users rely for news on Web sites maintained by the news organizations that the users say they otherwise dislike.

For example, one out of four Americans (26%) mention the Internet either first or second as their main source of presidential campaign news. Of those, more than half (54%) cite at least one of these three Web sites – MSNBC.com, CNN.com and Yahoo News. Both MSNBC and CNN are divisions of mainstream news organizations; many headlines and stories on Yahoo News, too, come from traditional news organizations.18 That points to a finding, long seen in the data and often not well understood: trust in the press does not correlate necessarily to usage. Often some of those most distrustful of media are its heaviest consumers.

And the findings about Internet users raise an intriguing question: what if some of the concerns people have with traditional journalism are ameliorated by the Web technology?

The public values the Internet in part because of its convenience. People like the ease with which they can find what they want, when they want. And some Internet users clearly prefer the Web as their news source for those reasons. It is less important to them that the Web sites may largely replicate the coverage being broadcast on television or published on newsprint — same content, different format, apparently different levels of satisfaction.

Partisan Gap among the Public

Then there is the question of partisan divide. With growing intensity, Republicans express more skepticism than Democrats about the fairness and accuracy of the media, and in 2007 some of those gaps grew to record size.

A far larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats regard the press as too critical of the United States, 63% vs. 23%, a gap of 40 percentage points.

The polarization is nearly as sharp in opinions about different news outlets. A smaller percentage of Republicans than Democrats express positive views about their daily newspaper (68% of Republicans, 86% of Democrats). Fewer like the national papers (41% vs. 79%). The same goes for network television news (56% vs. 84%).19

The partisan divide changes, however, depending on which party holds the White House. During Democratic administrations, Republicans are more supportive than Democrats of the press’ watchdog role over government. When the GOP controls the White House, more Democrats than Republicans endorse that function.

Thus in 2007, a majority of the public (58%) believed press criticism did more good than harm, but there were significant differences among Democrats (71%), Republicans (44%) and independents (60%).20

View of Watchdog Press Varies by President
Percent Saying Press Criticism Does More Good than Harm

1985 1989 1994 1997 1999 2001 2003 2005 2007
Reagan/ Bush Sr.
Clinton
George W. Bush
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
Total
67
68
66
56
58
60
54
60
58
Republicans
65
63
72
60
65
51
43
44
44
Democrats
71
72
62
52
57
65
56
72
71
Independents
64
72
66
59
55
64
65
65
60
R-D Gap
-6
-9
+10
+8
+8
-14
-13
-28
-27

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Views of Press Values and Performance: 1985-2007,” August 9, 2007.

The ideological differences extend to perceptions of political bias. Sharply higher numbers of Republicans than Democrats consider the press biased in its reporting (70% of Republicans vs. 29% of Democrats).21

But while the partisan divide over bias exists when it comes to the coverage of politics itself, here it is much less pronounced. In 2007, 41% of Americans saw no bias in the election coverage, but that figure included a significantly smaller percentage of all Republicans (28%) than Democrats (47%) or independents (43%).

Where did people think the bias tilted? Here the public is not so split. If there is a bias, more people think it is liberal. Fully 50% of all Republicans say they detect Democratic bias. But only 16% of Democrats (and 8% of independents) saw a tilt toward the GOP.22

Fewer See Pro-Republican Bias in Campaign Coverage
Percent of Survey Respondents

Jan 1988 Apr 1996 Jan 2000 Jan 2004 Late Dec 2007
In campaign coverage, more…
%
%
%
%
%
Pro-Democratic Bias
9
20
19
22
25
Pro-Republican Bias
10
14
13
17
9
No bias
58
53
48
38
41
Don’t know
23
13
20
23
25

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Views of Press Values and Performance: 1985-2007,” August 9, 2007.

Despite the growing divide, people have not lost faith in the idea of an independent press. Fully 67% of Americans say they prefer to get news that has no particular point of view, and the balance of opinion has not changed on this since 2004.

What is more, there are no significant differences on this by party. About two-thirds of Democrats (65%), Republicans (66%) and Independents (70%) say they like getting news that has no point of view, rather than news that reflects their own political outlook, although they might disagree as to which news reports are neutral.23

Iraq

Partisanship extends to opinions about press coverage of Iraq. Even if the public sometimes seemed to argue about the press’ role as a surrogate for arguing over the war itself, the debate still hints at the concern about press bias and the media’s role in a democracy.

A series of Pew surveys in 2007 consistently found that about 4 out of 10 Americans believed the press was providing an accurate picture of events in Iraq, and results from other polling organizations were about the same.

More people have confidence in the military (55%) to give an accurate picture of the war than the press (42%).24

Journalists themselves give their coverage higher marks, a difference that is a reminder of the contrast between how the public views the media and how journalists view their own work. In a PEJ survey of journalists with recent experience in Iraq, 70% believed their coverage over all gave an accurate picture of events there. About one in six (15%) believed the coverage made the situation look better than it was. Hardly any (3%) believed it was too negative.25

Conclusion

Nothing occurred in 2007 to change the now deep impression that Americans have formed that the press is an institution of immense power that should be viewed with suspicion. And looking ahead, the even more skeptical view of the Internet audience, and the problems and cutbacks facing the profession, offer a grim forecast that this might somehow quickly change.

But one impression that people may have is false: Since the new millennia, and as the media began to undergo an extraordinary revolution, those views have not changed or gotten more negative.

Despite what some might think, the view of the press heading into 2008 has in many ways become stable.

Footnotes

1. McClatchy Washington Bureau, Nov. 30, 2007. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/234/story/22376.html

2. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Views of Press Values and Performance: 1985-2007,” August 9, 2007.

3. Ibid

4. Ibid

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

7. Ibid

8. Ibid

9. Ibid

10. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Pew Weekly News Interest Index Poll, October 12, 2007. http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=362

11. Project for Excellence in Journalism, “The Invisible Primary – Invisible No Longer,” October 29, 2007. http://journalism.org/node/8189#_ftn2

12. In three polls conducted during 2007 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, those relying on television for national and international news ranged from 56% to 62%.

13. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Pew Weekly News Interest Index Poll, May 23, 2007. http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=330

14. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Internet’s Broader Role in Campaign 2008,” January, 11, 2008. Based on polling conducted December 19-30, 2007. http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=384

15. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Today’s Journalists Less Prominent,” March 8, 2007.

16. About 70% of American adults use the Internet, and of those, 37% on a typical day use the Internet to get news. Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Demographics of Internet Users,” http://www.pewInternet.org/trends/User_Demo_6.15.07.htm, and “Daily Interest Activities.” http://www.pewInternet.org/trends/Daily_Internet_Activities_8.28.07.htm. Broadband figure from Pew Internet & American Life Project, Why We Don’t Know Enough About Broadband in the U.S.http://pewinternet.org/pdfs/Backgrounder.MeasuringBroadband.pdf

17. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Views of Press Values and Performance: 1985-2007,” August 9, 2007.

18. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Internet’s Broader Role in Campaign 2008,” January, 11, 2008. Based on polling conducted December 19-30, 2007. http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=384

19. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Views of Press Values and Performance: 1985-2007,” August 9, 2007.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Internet’s Broader Role in Campaign 2008.,” Q43, banner C. http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/384.pdf

23. Ibid., page 22.

24. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Views of Press Values and Performance: 1985-2007,” August 9, 2007.Also, Pew Weekly News Interest Index Poll, November 9, 2007. http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=370

NBC News /Wall Street Journal poll, conducted by Hart and Newhouse Research Companies, April 20-23, 2007. Gallup Poll, December 18-20, 2006.

25. PEJ, “Journalists in Iraq: A Survey of Reporters on the Front Lines.” http://www.journalism.org/files/PEJ%20FINAL%20Survey%20of%20Journalists%20in%20IraqWITH%20SURVEY.pdf