March 30, 1999

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

Section IV. Business and Public Pressures

Members of the news media — particularly those in the newsroom — feel caught in a pressure cycle. Working journalists say that business pressures undermine quality, which hurts credibility, which in turn causes lost audiences. And that cycles back to added business pressure. Although there are striking differences between news media executives and newsroom journalists in their perceptions of the impact of business pressure, the press rightly recognizes serious public distrust of the news media today.

“People don’t like us… don’t trust us… don’t believe us,” says an editor at a national news service.

News media executives have a relatively benign view of the impact of business pressure on journalism. They see scant corporate and advertising influence on the content of news, view media consolidation efforts as largely harmless and argue that increased financial pressures are simply altering the way things are done. By a ratio of 59%-to-30%, national executives say increased financial pressures are just changing newsroom habits, not harming news coverage. The pattern on the local level is the same.

In contrast, senior news managers and reporters see increasing business pressures in the newsroom as damaging to the quality of their product. Among national news staff, a 53% majority says that financial pressure is seriously harming the quality of news coverage. Only 37% say business directives are merely changing the way they do their jobs. Again, this pattern is repeated among those in local news.

“We are negligent in our duties because of budgetary constraints,” says a programing director of local television news. “We don’t do our jobs if it costs too much.”

Bottom-line pressures have hit television and radio news especially hard. The number of local television people who see a negative fallout from financial strains has almost doubled since 1995, rising to 46% in this latest survey from 24% in 1995. Similarly, a 53% majority of those in national television news now say that bottom-line pressure is hurting the quality of news, up from 37% who said so in 1995.

“Budget cuts are forcing organizations to do more with less and that can jeopardize the quality of the product,” says a national broadcast journalist.

Buyouts Bother the Working Press

The press expresses serious reservations about growing corporate ownership of the news media. There are striking differences, however, in the way executives and news staff interpret the impact of buyouts of news organizations by diversified corporations and local newspapers by large newspaper chains.

Solid majorities of those in the national and local news media view buyouts of news organizations by diversified corporations as negatively influencing the profession. Overall, 69% say so, a number unchanged since 1989.

More news managers and staff than executives see corporate takeovers as pernicious, but the differences are not as sharp as they are with newspaper buyouts. This may be because the overwhelming consensus across all groups is that this has been a negative phenomenon.

Overall, almost two-thirds of those in the news media now see newspaper buyouts as a negative phenomenon, up somewhat since 1989, when 55% held this view. The exception lies with executives on both the local and national levels, who are far less likely to describe newspaper buyouts as negative than are those in the newsroom.

Only half of national news executives and 45% of local executives see newspaper buyouts as harmful — compared to about three-quarters of national news managers and staff and two-thirds of local managers and staff. Executives do not view these events as necessarily positive, but they are more likely than the other two groups to see buyouts as benign: One-third of executives say the sales have had no effect.

Although the question referred specifically to local newspaper buyouts, those in national television news express the most criticism: 81% say newspaper buyouts have had a negative impact on journalism, compared to 61% of those in national print and the same percentage in local news.

Corporate and Advertising Influences

Only about one-third of the press thinks that corporate owners exert significant influence over which stories to cover. This is almost completely unchanged since 1989 when just 32% felt this way, but the consistency over time masks substantial differences in how those in different occupations and different media markets perceive corporate influence.

The national press consistently sees less influence on the part of corporate executives than do those working in local news. On average, 26% of those in national news describe at least a fair amount of corporate influence, compared to 37% of the local press. Those involved in Internet news also see more influence than do the national media: 41% of those in Internet news say that corporate owners exert either a good deal or a fair amount of influence over which stories to cover.

The gap between those making executive and business decisions and those in the newsroom is even more dramatic. Members of the news staff see more than twice as much corporate influence over news content as executives do. This is true across both national and local media markets. On the national level, 36% of staff see a fair amount of influence, only 7% of the top bosses say this is so. Almost half (48%) of all local staff say corporate executives exert at least a fair amount of influence over news content, but just 21% of local executives agree. In both markets, senior managers tend to fall halfway between the two groups.

Advertisers garner less concern from the news media. Notably, national and local news staff see advertising concerns as relatively uninfluential — especially compared to corporate interests. For example, only one-fourth of the national news staff and about one-third of local news staff say that advertising concerns exert at least a fair amount of influence over which stories to cover.

Again, executives largely dismiss the charge of outside influence: 91% of national news executives and 81% of local news executives say advertisers have marginal influence, at best.

African-American and younger journalists are much more cynical about the amount of outside influence. Overall, whites largely reject the charge of corporate and advertising leverage over news content, but over half of blacks in the press say that corporate interests exert at least a fair amount of influence and fully 41% see at least this much pressure from advertising concerns. Similarly, half of those under age 35 see at least a fair amount of influence from both corporate pressures and advertising interests, but less than one-third of their elders say corporate pressures reach this level and only one-fifth say this is true of advertising.

Press Takes the Blame for Audiences

The increasingly intense business pressures facing news organizations often evolve from declining audiences — a phenomenon for which the media do not blame the public.

There is general agreement among those working in the news business that information overload is the top culprit for declining audiences. Over half of those in the national press and three-fifths of those in local news say that news organizations are losing readers, viewers and listeners because Americans feel overloaded with information.

“People are tuning the news out. Readership is down,” says a reporter for a national news service. “People have more choices with the Internet and cable channels.”

About half of the press rank lack of credibility with the public as a major reason for their failing audiences. This represents a significant jump since 1989, when only 32% of the press saw this as a major reason for declining audiences.

There are many indications that the press is right in this assessment. Today, 56% of the public finds political bias in news accounts, and 66% say the media tries to cover up its mistakes. Both findings are up 11 percentage points since 1985.

Slightly fewer but still significant percentages of those in the news media see inattention to stories that are meaningful to the average American as a major reason for the loss of viewers and readers. Those who have degrees in journalism are more likely than those who don’t to see this as an issue (47% vs. 38%).

Less than a quarter of the national news media and only slightly more of the local news media blame public disinterest in or general ignorance about serious news as a reason for declining audience or readership.

On this, Americans are more self-critical: 56% say they are generally bored by what goes on in Washington; 43% disagree.

In general, those working in national news assign somewhat less blame for lost audiences to the public than do those in local news. Over half (54%) of national news executives and journalists say the public bears little or no responsibility for declining audiences; 45% of local news members absolve the public of responsibility.

Making the Important Interesting

Despite this self-criticism, both the national and the local news media give fairly positive grades to journalism’s ability to make significant news interesting to the public — and to make sure it’s still news. About half of each group says that journalism does an excellent or good job striking a balance between the twin goals of what audiences want to know and what’s important for them to know. This general consensus, however, hides differences across mediums and between those at the top and the bottom of a news organization hierarchy.

Those working in national television outlets express the harshest criticism of their profession: Only 38% of them say the news media do an excellent or good job striking a balance between audience wants and needs, a sharp contrast to the 60% of those who work in national print who give journalism positive marks.

Finally, across all national news mediums, executives are the most satisfied with journalism’s balancing of audience wants and needs. Two-thirds say the news media do an excellent or good job with this task, while a majority of senior news managers and staffers working in national news disagree. (There are no real differences within the local media between print and television or between those at the top and bottom of news organizations — slight majorities of all groups give the news media good marks.)

When it comes to making important events interesting, solid majorities of each group — across levels, mediums and markets — give the news media positive grades. On this question, those in national television are not significantly more critical than their colleagues elsewhere.

Local Journalists Listen…

Any consensus between those in national and local news over how well they take the public’s interests into account does not extend, however, to their impressions of how much they should listen to their audiences. The local news media place greater emphasis on the public’s interests than the national media do. Nearly half of those working in local news say journalists, when deciding what stories to cover, should take the public’s interests into account a great deal; less than one-third of those in national news markets agree.

The different emphasis that those in national and local news place on the public’s interests reflects a significant gap in the attitudes of news staff across the national and local media markets. While less than one-third of those on national news staffs think that journalists should give a great deal of consideration to the interests of the public, fully 58% of local staff think the public deserves at least this much attention. This disparity is especially striking because it is largely limited to working journalists: Executives and senior news managers in the national and local arenas generally agree that a fair amount of attention should be accorded public interests.

…But Doubt

While staff members in the local news media place relatively greater weight on the public’s interests than do those working in national news, the latter group expresses more confidence in the public’s ability to make electoral and policy decisions than do those working in local news. Over half of the national press say they have a great deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making choices on Election Day; just over one-quarter of the local news media agree. These national vs. local differences are true across job type (executive, news manager, staff) and medium (print, television, radio).

Members of the national news media also express more confidence in the public’s ability to make wise decisions about issues than do those working in local news — although majorities of both groups express faith in the public’s ability to do so. About two-thirds of the national news media agree that Americans know enough about the issues they cover to make wise decisions about these issues, compared to just over half of the local news media. Those working in the national print press express the most confidence.

Little Faith — and Lots of Blame

There is a link between blaming the public for declining news audiences and being critical of the public’s decision-making abilities. Those who assign the most blame to the public for lost audiences also express the least amount of faith in the public’s ability to make wise decisions.

The skepticism that some news media executives and working journalists express about the public’s ability to make decisions about policy matters is decidedly mild compared to the overwhelming lack of faith accorded the public by federal government officials. As mentioned above, a solid majority of the national media and a sizeable number of those in local news say Americans know enough about the issues they cover to form wise opinions. In a similar question in 1998, only 31% of members of Congress, 13% of presidential appointees and 14% of senior civil servants agreed.1

But when the news media is compared to federal government leaders in their assessment of the public’s ability to make sound electoral decisions, the divides are less clear. Majorities of members of Congress and the national press say they have a great deal of trust in the American people on Election Day, while only about one-third of those in local news or serving in the upper levels of the federal bureaucracy agree.

  1. “Washington Leaders Wary of Public Opinion,” The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, April 1998.