March 21, 1997

Few Favor Media Scrutiny of Political Leaders

Other Important Findings and Analyses

Opinion of National Media Slumps

Increased criticism of specific press practices may have contributed to the more general decline in favorability toward various news media outlets. Favorable ratings for the national network television news have fallen to a twelve year low. Only 15% of Americans now have a very favorable opinion of the network TV news, down from 27% in 1992 and 30% in 1985. At the same time, network news viewership has fallen off significantly in recent years.1 Today, four-in-ten Americans say they watch the nightly network news regularly, compared to 60% in 1993.

Favorable ratings for the large national newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, have also fallen off in recent years. Some 41% of Americans now have a favorable opinion of these nationally influential papers, compared to 53% in 1992.

In contrast, ratings for local TV news have remained steady in recent years, suggesting that the public’s increased criticism of the media is directed more at national news organizations than at local news establishments. Local TV news is viewed more favorably and consumed by more people than any other news source. Fully 72% of Americans watch local news regularly. This compares with 56% who read a daily newspaper regularly, 41% who watch network TV news, 28% who watch CNN, and 24% who watch 60 Minutes regularly.

The public’s appetite for tabloid television has fallen off somewhat. Still, consumption of tabloid news is substantial. While small percentages watch such shows as A Current Affair, Hard Copy or Inside Edition regularly (15%), half of all adult Americans watch them at least sometimes. Far fewer read tabloid newspapers: 11% read the National Enquirer, The Sun or The Star regularly or sometimes.

Americans are consuming mainstream media not only less frequently these days but also with far less enthusiasm. Only 26% say they enjoy watching the news on television “a great deal,” down dramatically from 42% in 1985. A similar pattern was found for newspaper reading: 27% look forward to reading the paper each day, compared to 42% in 1985.

Respondents who had unfavorable opinions of network TV news and daily newspapers gave the same top two reasons: bias and emphasis on bad news. Television was also cited for carrying too much opinion rather than fact and for sensationalism. Newspapers were criticized for failing to report the whole story and for inaccuracy.

Despite increasing criticism of press performance, the news media still gets high ratings relative to other institutions, such as Congress and the courts. Analysis of the survey finds that an appreciation of the press’s watchdog role is no longer a factor in this seeming contradiction. However, liking the news product itself continues to neutralize criticisms of press performance. That is, people who say they enjoy the news rate it more favorably, even when they complain about unfairness, inaccuracy, and intrusiveness, than those who do not enjoy the news.

Muzzle That Watchdog?

A 1985 Times Mirror-sponsored Gallup survey found a 67% to 17% majority feeling that press scrutiny of political leaders is worth it, because it keeps political leaders honest. That margin has shrunk to 56% to 32% in the current poll. A growing lack of appreciation for the press’s watchdog role is apparent among all demographic and political groups but is most pronounced among older Americans and the less affluent.

Partisanship clearly plays a role in shaping attitudes toward the press on this issue. Democrats are far less supportive of the watchdog role in the Clinton era than they were in the 1980s, when Republican administrations were undergoing intense press scrutiny. However, Republicans still have a more critical view of the press in general. Fewer have a favorable opinion of network TV news (68% vs. 81% of Democrats), and more accuse the press of bias in its coverage of political and social issues.

Waning appreciation for the watchdog role may be linked to the fact that more Americans now think press coverage of the personal and ethical behavior of political leaders is excessive. Today 65% of the public say press coverage is excessive in this regard, up from 52% in 1989. Those who characterize press coverage of personal scandal as excessive are far more likely to reject the press’s watchdog role than are those who say such press coverage is not excessive.

The public distinguishes between press coverage of personal and ethical behavior vs. press criticism of policies and proposals. It is far less likely to condemn the media for excessive criticism of substance than for its focus on character. Only 46% say press criticism of the policies and proposals of political leaders is excessive.

While a large majority agrees that coverage of personal behavior is excessive, the public is evenly divided over whether scrutiny of personal and ethical behavior discourages competent people from entering public life or weeds out undesirable people (47% to 45%). However, there is strong support for the view that criticism of policy proposals helps the policy process rather than gets in the way of society solving its problems (59% to 34%).

That’s Entertainment

The public is now more discerning about what constitutes news. In 1989, the tabloid TV show A Current Affair was viewed more as news than entertainment (39% to 28%). Now, more than half the public recognizes it as an entertainment show, only one-in-four consider it news. The Today Show was also formerly viewed more as news than entertainment by a margin of 48% to 29%. Now, Americans are evenly divided: 40% say it is mainly a news show, 40% say it is mostly entertainment. America’s Most Wanted is also viewed more as entertainment now, though many still consider it news.

Television news magazines, both the long-running 60 Minutes and the newer variation Dateline NBC, are considered news rather than entertainment by most Americans. Fully 81% say 60 Minutes is news, and 71% say the same of Dateline.

Americans deplore tabloid-style news coverage but are clearly drawn to it. On the one hand, the public applauds press restraint, but at the same time, significant proportions closely follow crime stories involving celebrities. Americans overwhelmingly believe the press should wait until formal charges are brought before releasing the name of a criminal suspect. Fully 89% say the press should withhold this information, while 7% say the press should report the names of suspects.

In cases where the names of criminal suspects have been highly publicized, significant numbers of the public admit to pre-judging the accused. One-in-four of those able to identify Richard Jewell say they initially believed he was guilty of planting the bomb in Olympic park. Even more (37%) say they initially thought the two Dallas Cowboys wrongfully accused of sexual assault were guilty. While there was no racial element to the assessment of Jewell’s guilt or innocence, blacks and whites clearly diverged on the two football players. Some 39% of whites said they first thought the two players were guilty, while only 17% of blacks shared that view.

In both cases, majorities of the public blamed the media rather than law enforcement sources for any harm done to the reputations of the accused. In the Jewell case, 58% blamed the media, 24% blamed law enforcement. In the Dallas case, the media was held accountable by an even wider margin (67% to 16%).

The public endorses media restraint not only in criminal cases, but also in scandals of a more personal nature. An overwhelming majority believes news organizations did the right thing in withholding information about Bob Dole’s alleged extra- marital affair during the recent presidential campaign. More than seven-in-ten respondents overall, including 65% of Democrats, support the decision not to publish, and only 23% say news organizations should have made the information available.

In spite of their squeamishness about media feeding frenzies, Americans maintain their own rapacious appetite for scandal. An astounding 70% of respondents in this survey were able to identify JonBenet Ramsey as the child beauty queen slain in her home in Boulder, Colorado. A recent Pew Center survey also found 75% of the public could cite the amount of compensatory damages O.J. Simpson was ordered to pay in his recent civil trial. Far fewer, 52%, knew that President Clinton had named education as the top priority for his second term.2

More than 40% of Americans are interested in the investigation into JonBenet’s death — 19% are very interested, 25% somewhat. The Ramsey case has particular appeal to senior citizens, women — especially those over 50 — high school graduates, and tabloid TV viewers.

Yes to Investigative Journalism, No to Its Methods

Even in the wake of the recent Food Lion case, which raised questions about news gathering techniques used by ABC News reporters, the public overwhelmingly approves of investigative reporting. Fully 80% say in general they approve of the news media’s practice of uncovering and reporting on corruption and fraud in business, government agencies and other organizations. A similar majority (79%) expressed support for investigative reporting in a 1981 Gallup survey.

By a margin of 60% to 28% Americans would like to see more of this type of reporting rather than less. In 1981, the public called for more investigative reporting by an even wider margin — 66% to 19%. Those who are dubious about the media’s watchdog role and those who criticize the press for inaccuracy are more likely than others to say they want less, not more, investigative reporting.

The public is less approving of specific investigative techniques. Two-thirds (66%) disapprove of reporters concealing their identity and paying informers for information. A majority (54%) also disapprove of the use of hidden cameras, though a substantial minority (42%) approve of this practice. There is greater public acceptance for the use of unnamed sources. More than half (52%) approve of news organizations running stories that quote an unnamed source rather than giving the person’s name, up from the 42% who approved in 1981.

  1. "TV News Viewership Declines," Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, May 13, 1996.
  2. Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, National Social Trust Survey, February 1997.