August 4, 2002

News Media’s Improved Image Proves Short-Lived

The Sagging Stock Market's Big Audience

Introduction

In a summer dominated by business scandals and a sagging stock market, the public is in an increasingly cranky mood. President Bush’s approval ratings have slipped, support for increased regulation of business is up, and Americans are less confident that the government is giving them the straight story about terrorism.

At the same time public criticism of the news media, which abated in response to coverage of the 9-11 attacks, is once again as strong as ever. The favorable glow from the media’s post-9/11 performance has completely disappeared. As the media’s focus has shifted away from terrorism, Americans regard news organizations with the same degree of skepticism as they did in the 1990s.

A July Pew Research Center survey(1) of 1,365 adults shows that the public’s grades for news organizations have tumbled since November, on measures ranging from professionalism and patriotism to compassion and morality. Just 49% think news organizations are highly professional, down from 73% in November. If anything, the news media’s rating for professionalism is now a bit lower than it was in early September, shortly before the terrorist strikes (54%).

Over the same period, the news media’s rating for patriotism, which stood at an all-time high in November (69%), has plummeted 20 points. While 49% say the news organizations “stand up for America,” 35% believe it is too critical of the country. A majority once again believes news organizations do not care about the people they report on; in November, a 47% plurality viewed the press as compassionate. The trend is similar for the public’s assessment of the news media’s morality, fairness and accuracy, all of which have returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels.

Still, while Americans are once again taking a dim view of the press, they continue to value the watchdog role that news organizations perform. Indeed, there has been a modest uptick in the number who believe press scrutiny of political leaders keeps them from doing things they should not (from 54% to 59%). And a 49% plurality thinks press criticism of the military keeps the armed forces prepared, compared with 40% who say such criticism undermines the military; that marks little change since November.

The positive view of terrorism coverage that led to the short-lived boost in the news media’s image is still apparent in the current attitudes. The public continues to rate coverage of the war on terror ­ both in Afghanistan and at home ­ more highly than most other news stories. More than seven-in-ten gave the press an excellent or good grade for covering these stories, while more contentious news such as recent Supreme Court decisions on vouchers and the death penalty were rated less favorably.

A new Pew survey finds little change in the public’s assessment of the credibility of individual news organizations over the past two years. Once again, CNN is rated as the most credible television news source, with 37% giving it the top grade for believability (down from 42% in 1998). The Wall Street Journal rates nearly as high: 33% say they can believe most or all they read in that newspaper. Only 21% say the same about their own local paper.

Among leading political figures tested, former President Bill Clinton stands out for his extraordinarily low credibility. Roughly one-in-ten (12%) say they can believe all or most of what the former president says, while nearly four times as many (46%) believe almost nothing Clinton says. Clinton’s ratings are much lower than during the spring of 1998, in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal. By contrast, three-in-ten find the current president, George W. Bush, highly credible. But more Americans (39%) give Secretary of State Colin Powell top marks for believability.

Amid growing concerns about the economy and business scandals, President Bush’s standing among the public is sliding. Today, 65% approve of the job he is doing, five points lower than June’s measure, and 15 points below his rating in January. While the president’s handling of the threat of terrorism remains important to the public, analyses of Bloomberg News Surveys by the Pew Research Center found that concerns about the economy are becoming more important in the public’s judgment of Bush’s performance [see "Economy Becoming Bigger Factor in Bush Job Ratings" July 18, 2002]. In that regard, news interest in the volatile market is as high as it has ever been, roughly at the same level it was following the collapse of the Russian economy in August 1998 and when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 1,000 points within a one-week period.

The survey also shows that the spate of corporate scandals has begun to affect long-term attitudes toward business and government regulation. A 54% majority believes government regulation is necessary to protect the public interest, up from 50% earlier this year and 41% in 1994. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say corporations make too much profit, and for the first time a majority (51%) strongly holds that opinion.

Media’s Post-Post Sept. 11 Image

When the news media’s image showed dramatic improvement last fall, roughly half of Americans still viewed news organizations as unwilling to admit mistakes, believed they stood in the way of solving society’s problems, and were politically biased. Today, those perceptions are much more prevalent, as all three measures stand at virtually the same point they did just prior to Sept. 11.

Two-thirds of Americans believe news organizations are unwilling to acknowledge their errors, while just 23% say they admit their mistakes. There has been less change on the question of whether the news media stands in the way of society solving its problems; still, nearly six-in-ten see the media as an obstacle. And the number who believe news organizations are politically biased has increased by 12 points, to 59%.

As in the past, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to see the media as politically biased, but there has been a bigger shift on this issue since November among Democrats and independents. Solid majorities in both groups (57% of Democrats, 56% of independents) now see the media as biased; just 42% of Democrats and 40% of independents said that in November. Nearly seven-in-ten Republicans (69%) say the media is politically biased, a smaller increase from 61% last November.

A majority of Americans also believe news organizations are becoming more powerful. By two-to-one (57%-29%), the public says the media’s influence is growing, not decreasing. That opinion has been one of the few constants regarding the press ­ last September, 55% said the media’s influence was growing. Even in the mid-1980s, when the public’s overall opinion of the media was more favorable, 63% held that view.

Patriotism and Politics

For the most part, the improvement in the media’s image last fall cut across political and demographic lines, as have the negative changes since then. Still, it is notable that at least some groups continue to hold more favorable impressions of the press than they did before Sept. 11.

Last November, fully 78% of Democrats said the media “stands up for America,” up from 47% in early September. While that number has declined to 60% in the current survey, that is still 13 points above the September figure. Women also view the media as more patriotic than they did in September 2001, though less so than in November.

The same pattern is apparent, to a lesser degree, on attitudes on whether the press “protects democracy.” Overall, half hold that view now, a decrease from 60% last November. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say the media protects democracy, and more Democrats express thi
s view than did so last September.

1. This report is based on the results of three national surveys: July 22-28 (N=995), July 8-16 (N=1,365) and May 6-16 (N=1,002). See methodology.