March 30, 1999

Striking the Balance, Audience Interests, Business Pressures and Journalists’ Values

Section III. Views on Performance

The overall quality of news coverage — including issues ranging from decreased accuracy to increased sensationalism — remains the most important problem area in journalism today, according to the press. But its relative seriousness has plummeted compared to the loss of credibility with the public.

When asked about the validity of various criticisms of the press, a significant minority of the news media agree that news reports are increasingly full of factual errors and that too little attention is paid to correcting mistakes. Further, large majorities in the business say the line between reporting and commentary has blurred, as has the line between entertainment and news. The latter problem is particularly troubling to reporters and editors in the newsroom.

“People don’t trust us the way they used to, and they have good reason not to,” says a local television news assignment editor. “A lot of stuff now is slanted toward sensationalism.”

Standards Slipping

When asked to describe in their own words the most important problem confronting journalism today, half of journalists and news media executives mention issues related to quality, such as sloppy reporting, an erosion of standards and the trend toward sensationalism. While news quality remains the top concern, it no longer dominates as it did a decade ago when an overwhelming 70% in the news media said it was the most important problem facing the profession.

Today, growing numbers of the news media say that business and financial pressure is the most important problem confronting journalism: 40% in national markets and 37% in local, compared to 31% overall in 1989.

Looking at problems in journalism thematically, loss of credibility continues to rank third. But concern about it has almost doubled over the past 10 years, and it is the single problem most often cited by the press. Roughly one-in-three members of the national and local media now say that a decline in public trust, confidence and credibility is the most important problem facing journalism; 17% said this in 1989.

“Journalists are down among used car salesmen in credibility,” says a network news producer.

The print media are particularly concerned about the public’s attitude towards the press. More than four-in-ten print journalists and executives cite this as a major problem for journalism, compared to roughly 20% of those in television news. By contrast, more of those working in television than in print feel that the quality of news coverage is the most important problem facing journalism today.

Although younger members of the news media agree with their older colleagues’ concerns about the quality of reporting and economic pressures, fewer of those under the age of 35 mention problems associated with credibility than do those 55 and older (19% vs. 43%, respectively).

Criticisms of the Press

Overall, journalists and news media executives see plenty of room for improvement in the press. More than two-in-three agree that charges of paying too little attention to complex issues and the mixing of commentary and reporting are valid criticisms. More than half of the news media agree that journalists are too focused on internal dynamics (like getting the story first), out of touch with their audiences and too cynical.

This disconnect is obvious to Americans: two-thirds of them say the press doesn’t care about the people it covers.

Compared to 1995, more journalists and news media executives believe that the distinction between reporting and commentary has seriously eroded (69% of the national news media and 68% of local media agree that this is a valid criticism, compared to 53% and 44%, respectively, in 1995).

“I’m concerned about the blurring of the lines between the kind of fact-based journalism that I grew up with — and which I hope to continue to practice — and the proliferation of celebrity pundits who are constantly barraging the public with views that aren’t fact-based,” says a reporter for a national newspaper.

Similarly, the number who agree with the charge that news reports are increasingly full of errors is up in the national media to 40% from 30%, and up to 55% from 40% in the local media. Those in local television are even more critical of the inaccuracy of news reports: 62% say it is a valid criticism.

Americans agree that the press is sloppy: 58% say news stories and reports are often inaccurate, a jump from 34% in 1985.

On the upside, fewer members of the news media today believe that the press fails to cover positive developments adequately than they did in 1995 (down to 49% from 58% in the national media, and to 44% from 51% in the local markets). The Internet news media are particularly positive in this regard, with only one-in-three agreeing with the charge. The African-American journalists and executives surveyed, however, say just the opposite, with a 78% majority agreeing that positive developments are under-reported.

Entertainment vs. Hard News

The news media are also concerned that pressure to attract audiences is pushing their industry too far in the direction of infotainment. Two-thirds of those in national, local and Internet news say that efforts to attract readers or viewers take them too far in this direction. This criticism is especially strong among news staff members: Three-quarters of those in local and national news markets say this is so — a significantly larger number than the 57% of national executives and 54% of local executives who agree.

“Journalists feel the need to entertain people as opposed to the need to inform them,” says a sports reporter for a national newspaper.

When it comes to covering complicated stories, the news media generally agree that television faces greater obstacles than print. Solid majorities of top brass, middle management and newsroom staff acknowledge at least a fair amount of difficulty inherent in television news’ attempts to inform the public about complicated topics. There is little consensus among the different media about the extent of this challenge, however.

About six-in-ten of those in the print press say that it is very difficult for television to cover complicated news stories, but less than one-third of those in television agree. Instead, most in television news say that this is fairly difficult for them to do. The Internet press falls in between these other two, with 51% saying very difficult and 39% saying fairly difficult.

The Watchdog Role

A narrow majority of journalists and news media executives now believe that by covering the personal and ethical behavior of public figures, news organizations often drive controversies rather than simply report the news.

“Anything is fair game for the media today,” says the president of a midwestern television station. “There are no restraints.”

This reflects a dramatic shift in opinion on this issue since the mid-1990s, particularly among those in local news. In 1995, 61% of the local media believed news organizations were simply reporting the facts in their coverage of politicians’ personal and ethical behavior; only 33% said they were actually driving the controversies. Today those numbers are nearly reversed: 39% say news organizations are reporting the facts; 56% say they are driving the controversies.

The shift is more pronounced in television news than print. Six-in-ten in national television news now think news organizations drive controversies about public figures; in 1995, 37% held this view. Similarly, 59% in local television now think news coverage drives controversies, compared to 32% in 1995.

It follows that journalists and media executives are critical of the way national news organizations covered the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. More than half say the scandal received too much coverage; roughly four-in-ten say the quantity of coverage was about right. The national and local press have nearly identical views on this issue. Among those in national news, 57% say news organizations made too much of the scandal; among those in local news, 60% make the same judgment.

Reporters and editors are among the most critical of the Clinton-Lewinsky coverage. Two-thirds of national news staff think the scandal was overcovered, a view shared by 65% of local staff. This compares with only 44% of national executives and 48% of local executives.

Two-thirds of the American people agree,1 and after the impeachment trial ended, 59% gave the press a “C” grade or worse for its coverage of the scandal.

In spite of this widespread self-criticism, journalists and media executives still strongly adhere to the value of the watchdog role. Nearly 90% say that criticism of political leaders is worth it because it keeps those leaders from doing things that should not be done. Less than 10% think that such criticism keeps political leaders from doing their job. This holds true across markets and mediums.

Opinions on Polls

More than six-in-ten in the news media believe polls are right most or all of the time, and a majority say polls have a positive impact on society. Those in the national press express slightly more faith in the accuracy of polls than the local media (69% compared to 61%), but no greater belief that they work in the best interest of the country.

The American people are more skeptical of polls’ accuracy, but they are also more supportive of their good. Just 26% of the public believe polls are right most or all of the time,2 while 66% say they are beneficial.3

  1. “Support for Clinton Unchanged by Judiciary Committee Vote,” The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, December 1998.
  2. “Public Opinion About Polls: How People Decide Whether to Believe Survey Results,” Paul Lavrakas et al., September 1998.
  3. “Conservative Opinions Not Underestimated, But Racial Hostility Missed,” The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, March 1998.