November 28, 2001

Terror Coverage Boost News Media’s Images

But Military Censorship Backed

Introduction and Summary

These are the best of times and the worst of times for the news media when it comes to public support. By and large, Americans continue to praise the press for its coverage of the war on terrorism, here and abroad. So much so that the general image of the media has, at least temporarily, lost some of its tarnish. At the same time, however, the public shows strong support for government control of the news for the sake of national security.

The latest Pew Research Center survey of 1,500 adults finds the public giving the media better grades for its performance and higher approval ratings for the values of journalists and news organizations. The number who think the media usually gets the facts straight has risen from 35% in early September to 46% today – the best grade for accuracy in Pew Center surveys since 1992. News organizations also continue to get good grades for covering the terrorist attacks and the war on terrorism, though not as high as during the first week after the attacks. The percentage rating media performance as excellent or good has slipped from 89% in mid-September to a still lofty 77% in the current survey.

Mirroring satisfaction with its recent performance, the public now holds more favorable opinions of the press’s professionalism, morality, patriotism and compassion. In particular, the percentage saying that they think news organizations stand up for America jumped from 43% in early September to 69% in the current poll. The previous high for the press on this measure had been 53%, in 1987. Similarly, the percentage seeing the news media as protecting democracy has increased from 46% three months ago to 60% now – again an all-time high for the media on this indicator.

While the public has higher regard for the media, it also favors tight government control over information related to national security – indeed, support for military censorship is as high as it was during the Persian Gulf War. By 53%-39%, respondents say it is more important for the government to be able to censor stories it believes could threaten national security than for the media to be able to report news it sees as in the national interest. By a comparable margin, Americans say the military should exert more control over news about the war rather than leave most decisions to the media.

Despite its support for military censorship, the public is not comfortable with the media substituting propaganda for news, nor does it prefer the press to be a lap dog rather than a watchdog. The survey finds a solid majority in favor of war coverage that is neutral rather than pro-American. An even larger percentage (73%) favors coverage that portrays all points of view, including those of countries unfriendly to the United States, over pro-American news. And by 52%-40%, respondents say that when covering the war, news organizations should dig hard for information rather than trusting government and military officials who refuse to officially release information.

Along these same lines, the survey shows continued respect for the watchdog role played by news organizations, even at a time of national crisis. Roughly half of Americans believe press scrutiny of the military keeps the nation prepared, compared with 37% who say it undermines the country’s defense. By an even larger margin (54%-32%), the public thinks press criticism of political leaders prevents wrongdoing rather than keeping them from doing their jobs.

While most of the public thinks that information about the war has been censored, there is little sense that the government is trying to cover up bad news, either from abroad or at home. Fully 82% believe that Pentagon officials are disclosing as much as they can about military operations in Afghanistan – just 16% think the government has been hiding bad news. Nearly two-thirds (65%) find news reports from the front to be accurate, but fewer (58%) say the same about the sometimes confusing reporting on anthrax and other domestic terrorist threats.

Most Americans are turning to cable news for reports about terrorism and the war, and the number doing so has increased since mid-September. Fully 53% cite cable as their primary source for news on the crisis, versus 17% for network TV and 18% for local TV. Other non-television sources lag well behind cable, although the number relying mostly on newspapers has tripled (from 11% to 34%) since the week of the attacks. All types of media may take comfort in the fact that 66% of respondents say they are more interested in the news now than before Sept. 11. This is appreciably higher than the 49% expressing increased interest a decade ago as a result of the Gulf war.