August 4, 2002

News Media’s Improved Image Proves Short-Lived

Other Important Findings and Analysis

A Boost for the Watchdog Role

Though the public has much lower regard for the media’s values, most Americans continue to favor the watchdog role performed by news organizations. If anything, there is greater support now than in November, when the media’s overall image was much more favorable.

Six-in-ten Americans (59%) say press criticism keeps political leaders from doing things that should not be done, while just 26% believe it prevents politicians from doing their jobs. The number favoring the watchdog role is up slightly from November, and is at about the same level as in early September (60%).

Republicans were divided on this issue in November, with 48% favoring an aggressive media role and 41% saying it hamstrings political leaders. Now, 53% back the watchdog role and 31% say it is not worth it. Democrats, who already strongly backed press scrutiny of political leaders, also are more supportive.

Americans express more reservations about news organizations criticizing the military; 49% say such criticism keeps the nation prepared, while 40% believe it weakens our defenses. In November, the same number (49%) thought the press’ watchdog role kept the nation prepared. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, more people (59%) felt press criticism of the military was worth it, while just 28% thought it undermined the nation’s defenses.

Scandals Take Toll on Business

The public’s fundamental attitudes toward business remained fairly constant through the early part of this year, but there are signs that the weight of highly visible corporate scandals is having a negative impact. Since February, when the Enron scandal broke, there have been modest increases in the number of Americans who believe corporations are making too much profit and see the need for government regulation of business.

The changes are more dramatic when measured over the long-term. Currently, 54% say government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest, an increase of four points since February and 13 points since the summer of 1994, prior to the Republican successes in the off-year elections that fall. Indeed, sentiment on this question is completely reversed compared with 1994, when opponents of regulation outnumbered supporters by a margin of 54% to 41%; now supporters outnumber opponents by 54% to 36%.

The percentage of the public saying that business corporations make too much profit now stands at 58%, compared with 54% in February and 52% in the 1990s. Just a third now say business corporations make a “fair and reasonable profit,” down from 42% in 1999. There has been less of a long-term change in opinion on whether too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies. That has long been a widely held view ­ 80% say so now, compared with 77% earlier this year and 76% in 1994.

Notably, the intensity of opinion on these issues has increased; 51% now feel strongly that businesses make too much profit compared with 44% who strongly agreed with that opinion in February. Over the same period, there was a five-point rise in the number who feel strongly that too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies (from 62% to 67%).

Declining Confidence in Terrorist Reports

Americans are less confident now than last fall that they are getting accurate reports from the government about efforts to deal with terrorism. In November, fully eight-in-ten Americans had a great deal or fair amount of confidence that the government was giving the public an accurate picture. Today, 60% express such confidence.

The decline has been most notable among African Americans. In November, 68% of African Americans had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in government reports; today, only 40% do. In November, residents of the eastern U.S. were the most confident about government reports; today they are among the least confident (83% then, 57% now). Liberal Democrats have experienced a similarly steep decline in confidence, but even conservative Republicans have dropped from 94% confidence to 79%.

Amid some complaints that government warnings about possible terrorist attacks are too vague and only alarm people, the public itself sees the situation somewhat differently. By a margin of more than two-to-one, Americans say that the government should be giving the public all the warnings it can, even if the warnings are vague (62%), and rejects the criticism that the government is scaring people too much by issuing vague warnings (28%).

The public has a similar assessment of news reports on terrorist threats. The same number of Americans fault the press for scaring the public unnecessarily as criticize the government for too many vague warnings (28% in both cases). Fewer (20%) say the press is not giving the public the news it needs about possible terrorist threats. But for the most part, the public sees news organizations as striking the right balance between the two (41%).

Women tend to be less critical than men of both the government’s and the media’s handling of terrorism reporting. One-third of men think the public is being scared by excessive news reporting of possible terrorist threats, compared with only 23% of women, while more women see the press striking the right balance. Similarly, though majorities of both men and women think the government should be giving all the warnings it can, men are somewhat more likely to say the government is scaring people too much.

Media Credibility Ratings

The public’s evaluations of the credibility of major news organizations has remained fairly stable over the past two years. Among major TV outlets, the ratings are unchanged or show a slight decline. CNN continues to be rated the most believable television news source, with 37% of Americans who are able to rate it saying they believe all or most of what they see and hear on CNN. This represents a modest slip in credibility from a peak of 42% in 1998.

The three major broadcast networks are rated about equally in terms of believability: roughly one-in-four say they believe all or most of what they see on ABC, NBC and CBS. This represents a slight decline for all three networks: from 1996 through 2000 roughly three-in-ten gave network news the highest rating for believability. As in previous years, network news magazines are rated slightly better than the news organizations themselves. One-third (34%) give CBS’s 60 Minutes a high rating for believability, 31% give the same high rating to ABC’s 20/20, and 28% to NBC’s Dateline.

The ratings of local TV are similar to the networks, with 27% saying they can believe all or most of what they see on their local newscasts. Credibility here has dropped from 33% and 34% in 2000 and 1998, respectively.

Fewer Americans are able to rate MSNBC and the Fox News Channel. Among those who can rate them, 28% give MSNBC high marks for believability, and 24% say the same about the Fox News Channel. C-SPAN receives high believability ratings from 30% of those able to rate it.

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is less well-known than commercial evening news programs, but its credibility ratings are comparable among those who can rate them. The NewsHour is rated highly by roughly one-quarter of the public — 26% say they can believe all or most of what they hear on this show. Ratings for National Public Radio are slightly lower (23% say they believe all or most of what they say).

Not surprisingly, there is a partisan dimension to evaluations of media credibility. Republicans tend to be more skeptical of most media sources, with the notable exception of the Fox News Cable Channel. For example, 45% of Democrats say they believe all or most of what they see on CNN, compared with 32% of Republicans, and there is a similar credibility gap with respect to the network evening news programs. Republicans and Democrats, however, are equally likely to say Fox News is credible (28% and 27%, respectively).

Wall Street Journal Highly Credible

Though unfamiliar to many Americans, the Wall Street Journal is seen as a highly credible news source among those who rate it, a third of whom say they believe all or most of what they read there. This compares favorably to local papers and USA Today. Fewer than one-in-four (21%) give their local daily newspaper equally high marks for believability, and USA Today is highly rated by just 19% of those who gave an opinion.

Among news magazines, U.S. News and World Report receives slightly better marks for credibility than Time or Newsweek. Among those who can rate the magazines, just over a quarter (26%) believe all or most of what they read in U.S. News and World Report, compared with 23% for Time and 20% for Newsweek. Believability ratings for both Time and Newsweek are slightly lower this year than in 2000 or 1998.

Entertainment and tabloid outlets such as People and the National Enquirer receive the lowest ratings overall. Just 9% of those able to rate People Magazine say they can believe all or most of what they read in the magazine, while twice as many (21%) say they believe almost nothing they read there. Even fewer (3%) give high credibility to the Enquirer, while three-quarters (76%) say it simply cannot be believed.

Broadcast Anchors More Believable

Despite modest believability ratings for their network news programs, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings remain the most trusted figures in television news. By comparison, the best-known cable news anchors ­ Brian Williams, Brit Hume and Aaron Brown ­ and cable talk hosts ­ Larry King and Bill O’Reilly ­ are seen as significantly less credible.

More than a third of those able to rate them say they believe all or most of what the broadcast network anchors say, and only about one-in-five give these news figures even modestly negative ratings for credibility. Other well-known network personalities, such as Diane Sawyer and Ted Koppel, get similarly high marks for believability.

In addition to being less visible, cable news anchors also are not seen in as favorable terms by those familiar with them. Fewer than one-in-five give MSNBC’s Brian Williams and Fox’s Brit Hume high marks for credibility, and just 14% say they completely believe CNN’s Aaron Brown.

One of the most recognized cable news figures ­ talk show host Larry King ­ gets decidedly mixed reviews. While 18% say they believe all or most of what King says, almost as many (16%) say they believe almost nothing. But this is an improvement for King; six years ago 27% said he was not credible, and only 11% gave him high marks.

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly is seen as slightly more credible than King, although O’Reilly is not nearly as well known. Among those who are familiar with O’Reilly, 22% say they believe all or most of what he has to say, while just 13% believe almost nothing. His Fox colleague Geraldo Rivera, who is more widely recognized than O’Reilly, is seen as far less credible. People who believe almost nothing of what Rivera says outnumber those who find him highly credible by four-to-one (36% to 9%).

Clinton’s Lost Credibility

While never enjoying a particularly high level of public trust, Bill Clinton’s credibility is currently in the tank. Though a minority (12%) says they believe all or most of what Clinton says, nearly four times as many (46%) say they can believe almost nothing of what Clinton says. Fully 77% of Republicans take this view, while 40% of independents and 22% of Democrats agree. In May 1998, months before his testimony in the Lewinsky case, just 23% gave Clinton this lowest mark for believability.

Three-in-ten say they believe all or most of what George W. Bush says, twice as many as find him to not be credible (13%). The last measure of presidential credibility this high was soon after President Reagan’s re-election in 1985, though the question was not asked about the first President Bush when he enjoyed broad job approval during and after the Gulf War. More than half of Republicans (52%) give Bush the highest score for credibility. Democrats are divided, just as many say they cannot believe Bush (21%) as trust him implicitly (16%).

Al Gore also suffers from a credibility problem, though not as severe as Clinton’s. Fully 27% of those who can rate him said they believe almost nothing of what Gore says, twice as many as say they find him highly credible (13%).

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle also lacks credibility in the eyes of many people. Among the two-thirds of Americans who can give Daschle a believability rating, nearly a quarter gave him the lowest available mark, while just 9% say they believe all or most of what Daschle says.

By comparison, members of the Bush administration are seen as far more believable, particularly Secretary of State Colin Powell. Nearly four-in-ten (39%) say they believe all or most of what Powell says, making him the only politician whose credibility rating rivals those of the network news anchors.

Pledge Controversy Top News Story

News of a controversial court ruling on the Pledge of Allegiance and stories on terrorism led the Pew news interest index for July. A majority of Americans (52%) paid very close attention to the recent federal court ruling that the words “One nation, under God” cannot appear in the Pledge of Allegiance. That marks the highest interest in a non-terrorism story since Sept. 11, and one of the most closely followed court decisions since Pew began measuring news interest in 1986. Two 1989 Supreme Court rulings, on flag burning and abortion, attracted nearly as much interest (51%, 47% respectively).

Religious people followed the court’s decision much more closely than the non-religious. Solid majorities of Protestants (56%) and Catholics (54%) paid very close attention to the court ruling, compared with only about a third of seculars (34%). Republicans and conservatives followed this story more closely than Democrats and liberals; 62% of conservative Republicans tracked the court ruling very closely compared with 48% of liberal Democrats.

Interest in terrorism-related stories remains high. Half (51%) said they paid very close attention to stories on defending the United States against terrorism, a modest rise from 45% in June. Interest in U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan rose slightly, from 38% to 41%.

Two recent Supreme Court decisions garnered far less attention than the federal court ruling on the Pledge of Allegiance. Just one-in-five (19%) paid very close attention to the Court’s decision permitting vouchers to be used at private and religious schools, while fewer (16%) very closely followed the ruling banning the execution of the mentally retarded.

The quadrennial World Cup soccer tournament held in Japan and South Korea was followed very or fairly closely by one-quarter (26%) of the public in June. Although relatively few people said they followed the tournament very closely (10%), three-in-ten (31%) correctly identified the Brazilian national team as the champions of the tournament. Hispanic Americans and college graduates are significantly more knowledgeable on this topic than others. Four years ago, 38% were able to corre
ctly identify the French national team as the World Cup champions.

Interest in Economy; Not Bush’s Past

With greater news coverage and more Americans invested in the stock market, market volatility garners higher public interest today than in the past. Two-thirds of Americans say they paid at least fairly close attention to recent ups and downs in the market, the highest interest level ever registered. The nearest comparison is September 1998, when the market fell more than 1,000 points in one week on the heels of the crumbling of the Russian economy and massive loan defaults. At that time, 63% followed the news closely.

Interest in the stock market is greatest among those age 50-64, fully 41% of whom are following this news very closely, and another 33% fairly closely. By comparison, just 23% of those under age 30 are following market news very closely, and one-third of those age 30 to 49 and 65 and older say the same.

Roughly three in-ten Americans (28%) closely tracked recent business scandals involving WorldCom and other major U.S. corporations. The number paying very close attention to such scandals has nearly tripled from 11% last December, when news of the bankruptcy of the Enron Corporation broke. People with a college degree and those in the highest income categories are significantly more interested in this story, as well as the stock market, than are those with less education and lower incomes.

But public interest in legal and ethical questions surrounding Bush’s tenure as a board member of the Harken Energy company in the 1990s is of relatively little interest to most Americans. Just 13% are following this story very closely, while 62% say they are following it not too or not at all closely. While older Americans, college graduates and those with higher incomes show somewhat more interest in this story than those who are younger, less educated, and poorer, there is little evidence of a partisan divide. Democrats are, at best, only slightly more interested in the story than Republicans, with 16% and 13%, respectively, of each following the story very closely.

Highest Grades for Terrorism Coverage

The media gets higher marks for coverage of terrorism-related stories and the military efforts in Afghanistan than for coverage of other stories. Among the people who were following these stories very or fairly closely, seven-in-ten rate coverage of terrorism and the war as excellent or good. Ratings for press coverage of terrorism-related news were very strong in the initial weeks following the attacks, but subsequently declined and have stabilized in the past few months.

Roughly six-in-ten (62%) of the people following the WorldCom business scandal closely rated the coverage as excellent or good. Coverage of the Pledge of Allegiance decision was rated excellent or good by 57%. Around half (51%) of those following closely gave excellent or good ratings to coverage of the death penalty decision and 47% favorably rated coverage of the voucher ruling.