July 13, 2003

Strong Opposition to Media Cross-Ownership Emerges

Public Wants Neutrality and Pro-American Point of View

Summary of Findings

Opposition to a Federal Communications Commission decision to loosen media cross-ownership restrictions has increased sharply since February, as more Americans have learned about the plan. Overall, half say the FCC decision would have a negative impact on the country, up from 34% in February. Just 10% believe the effect of the rules change will be positive, largely unchanged from February.

Public awareness of the new media ownership rules, which are currently being challenged in Congress, has grown significantly. Nearly half of Americans (48%) say they have heard a lot (12%) or a little (36%) about the issue. In February, only about a quarter of the public (26%) knew even a little about the plan.

People who are most familiar with the FCC plan have an overwhelmingly negative opinion of it. By roughly ten-to-one (70%-6%), those who have heard a lot about the rules change say its impact will be negative, not positive. A majority (57%) of those who have heard a little about the proposal agree. Among the half of Americans who say they had heard nothing about this prior to the interview, there is considerably less concern (40%).

The latest Pew Research Center nationwide survey of 1,201 adults, conducted June 19-July 2, finds that problems with false stories and plagiarism at the New York Times this spring have had surprisingly little impact on overall public attitudes toward the news media. Americans are highly critical of the press on a number of issues, faulting it for inaccuracy, arrogance and political bias, but no more so than in recent years.

Equally notable is the public’s receptivity to the idea that news organizations embrace a decidedly “pro-American” viewpoint, which coexists with continuing support for neutrality in news coverage. Seven-in-ten Americans see it as a good thing when news organizations take a “strong pro-American point of view.” However, when asked specifically if it is better for coverage of the war on terrorism to be neutral or pro-American, fully 64% favor neutral coverage. And these views are largely unrelated. Even most of those who see a pro-American point of view as a good thing favor neutral war coverage (62%).

The survey shows that the public has nuanced views about patriotism and the press. A narrow majority of Americans (51%) believe that news organizations generally “stand up for America.” At the same time, however, many more people believe some news organizations are becoming too critical of America (46%) than say they are becoming too pro-American (25%).

The growing audience for the Fox News Channel, nearly half of whom identify themselves as conservatives, has more consistently negative views of media, especially regarding its patriotism. Nearly two-thirds of Fox News viewers (65%) believe some news outlets are becoming too critical of America, compared with fewer than half of CNN and network news viewers (48%, 45% respectively). (Note: Respondents are asked “How have you been getting most of your news about national and international events?” Multiple answers are allowed. )

The survey finds a greater percentage of the public saying they most often turn to Fox News Channel for national and international news compared with 18 months ago. More than one-in-five Americans (22%) say they get most of their news from Fox News. This is up from the 16% recorded in January 2002 and only somewhat behind the 27% citing CNN in the current survey.

The Fox News audience is decidedly more Republican, and more politically conservative, than the audiences for network news and CNN, as well as the public as a whole. Four-in-ten Fox News viewers (41%) identify themselves as Republicans compared with 32% of network news viewers, 29% of the CNN audience, and 30% of Americans overall. (See Table, page 12.)

These differences are reflected in contrasting attitudes toward the media and politics. Two-thirds of Fox News viewers (66%) see the press as liberal compared with 54% of network news viewers and fewer than half (47%) of CNN viewers. The Fox News audience also is more likely to prefer pro-American coverage of the war on terrorism. Four-in-ten Fox News viewers say it is better that coverage be pro-American than neutral, compared with 32% of CNN viewers, 26% of network news viewers and 29% of the public. Still, a majority of Fox News viewers (54%) prefer neutral coverage of the war on terrorism.

Politically, Fox News viewers express much stronger support for President Bush and his policies ­ and are more likely to have a negative view of former President Clinton ­ than are viewers of other news outlets. Nearly three-quarters of Fox News viewers (74%) approve of the president’s job performance compared with 60% of the public and roughly the same percentage of CNN and network news viewers (63%, 61% respectively). People who get most of their news from Fox News also are more likely to approve of Bush’s efforts on the economy and support the war in Iraq than the general public or viewers of other news outlets. (See Table, page 12.)

Americans generally are divided over President Clinton’s legacy, with 49% saying he will be remembered as one of the best presidents, or better than most, while nearly as many (46%) believe he will be recalled as not as good as most presidents or one of the worst. Nearly six-in-ten Fox News viewers (57%) see Clinton’s legacy in a negative light, compared with 48% of network viewers and 41% of the CNN audience.

Bush Treated Fairly, Most Say

For the most part, people believe the media is giving President Bush fair coverage. More than six-in-ten (62%) say the news organizations they are familiar with have been fair to the president compared with 24% who say they have been unfair. Perceptions of media coverage of Bush have changed little since early in his presidency. In February 2001, 65% viewed the coverage of the president as fair.

Perceptions of the media’s treatment of Bush are comparable to those for former President Reagan late in his second term. By comparison, somewhat more people felt the press was being fair to Bush’s father during his presidency. Public views of press coverage of former President Clinton varied widely. As many as two-thirds felt Clinton received fair treatment, but on a few occasions in Clinton’s presidency only about half believed he was being treated fairly.

Among those who were asked a different form of the question, a 48% plurality indicated that coverage of Bush’s policies and performance has been “about right,” while 25% think the press has been too critical and nearly as many (23%) say it has not been critical enough. The public had roughly the same view of coverage of Clinton’s presidency a decade ago (June 1993), although somewhat more (35%) thought news organizations were being too critical of Clinton’s policies and performance. That was at a point when just 51% felt the press was covering Clinton fairly, and 43% said they were being unfair.

As might be expected, political partisans differ in their views of press coverage of the president. Nearly half of Republicans (46%) say the press is too critical of the president, while 44% believe the coverage has been about right. A plurality of Democrats (47%) believes the coverage has been appropriate, while 38% think it has not been critical enough of the president. These political differences also are reflected in news audiences’ perceptions. Nearly four-in-ten Fox viewers (38%) say the press has been too critical of Bush; only about one-in-five network news and CNN viewers agree (21% each).

Mixed View of Opinionated Hosts

The public takes a very positive view of news organizations adopting a pro-American viewpoint. But there are modest age differences over this issue and the age gap is even more pronounced in attitudes toward other trends in news programming.

In particular, younger people are much more positive about hosts of news shows expressing strong political opinions than are older Americans. Nearly six-in-ten of those under age 30 (58%) see this as a good thing. Just a third of people age 65 and older view this as a positive trend. A plurality of those age 50 and older believes opinionated news hosts are a bad thing.

In addition, a majority of those under age 30 (53%) find the growth of political news talk shows on cable as a good thing. About half of those age 30-49 (48%) and 50-64 (50%) agree. But seniors are less enthused about this trend. Only about a third (35%) have a positive view of more cable chat shows.

There is more agreement among different television news audiences about whether these trends are positive or not. Large majorities of viewers of Fox News (77%) CNN (74%) and the networks (72%) say it is good that news organizations take a pro-American point of view. And these groups take a similar view of news hosts with strong political opinions and the rise of cable news talk shows.

Views of Media Unaffected by Times Flap

With few exceptions, the public’s general ratings of press performance and values today are on par with their scorecard in recent years ­ with the prominent exception of a brief spike in positive views of the media in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The stability in public evaluations of press performance serves to highlight the magnitude of the short-term impact of the attacks, and shows the minimal impact the recent problems at the New York Times have had on the public.

Overall, 56% say media stories and reports are often inaccurate and 62% say the press generally tries to cover up its mistakes rather than admitting them, both figures virtually unchanged from recent years (holding aside the brief surge in public regard for the press following 9/11). Given those attitudes, it is probably not surprising that a majority of Americans (58%) believe that reporters at all news organizations either frequently (22%) or occasionally (36%) make up news stories, as occurred at the Times.

Fully half of the public say they have heard a great deal (21%) or some (29%) about the serious problems with reporting at the Times that led to the resignation of its top editors. But there is no evidence that awareness of the Times’ difficulties has had any impact on the public’s already cynical views about media accuracy and responsiveness. People who followed the Times story closely express no more or less cynicism about media accuracy or responsiveness than the third of Americans who heard nothing at all about the scandal.

‘Liberal’ Media Image Persists

Public cynicism about press values and performance runs deeper than perceived inaccuracies. Most Americans (53%) believe that news organizations are politically biased, while just 29% say they are careful to remove bias from their reports. When it comes to describing the press, twice as many say news organizations are “liberal” (51%) than “conservative” (26%) while 14% say neither phrase applies. This was also the case in surveys conducted in the mid- to- late 1980s and, not surprisingly, there is a significant partisan cast to these perceptions.

Republicans see the press as more liberal than conservative by nearly three-to-one (65%- 22%). Among independents, the margin is two-to-one (50%-25%). And while a third of Democrats say there is a conservative tilt to the American press, a slight plurality (41%) says the press is more liberal than anything else.

But an ideological slant is not the only form of bias the public perceives. Two-thirds say news organizations pay too much attention to bad news ­ just a quarter say the press reports the kind of stories they should be covering. Just 2% say too much attention is given to good news.

Over the past two decades, public concern about press bias has been gradually increasing. Today, two-thirds (66%) say the press tends to favor one side when presenting the news, and seven-in-ten say news outlets are often influenced by powerful people and organizations. In 1985, barely half (53% each) expressed such negative opinions about media independence.

Media Seen As Lacking in Empathy

News organizations also receive poor evaluations for how they interact with the subjects of their stories. Most Americans (56%) say journalists do not care about the people they report on, while just 31% say they do. But there are signs of improvement on this aspect of the media’s image, and the 9/11 attacks may have been a turning point.

The proportion who think news organizations care about the people they report on doubled in the months following the terrorist attacks (from 23% in early Sept. 2001 to 47% two months later). Much of that good feeling has since faded, but today somewhat more describe the press as caring than did so just prior to Sept. 11 (31% now vs. 23% then).

While the public is cynical about how the press treats people generally, most of those who have been mentioned or quoted in a news story express satisfaction with the way the story turned out. Nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) say they have been quoted or mentioned in a news story, up from 19% in 1985. Asked to think about the last time they were quoted or mentioned, fully 73% of those say they are satisfied with the way the story turned out while just 24% are dissatisfied.

But the press receives poor ratings when it comes to its responsiveness to public feedback. Most (58%) say news organizations do not pay attention to complaints from the public about inaccuracies in news reports, while just over a third (35%) say they do.

Professionalism, Patriotism Rate High

The public is less critical of press professionalism and morality. Most Americans (68%) believe news organizations “care about how good a job they do” and 62% describe the press as “highly professional.” People have a more mixed view of the media’s morality. Somewhat more people believe the press is moral (45%) than immoral (32%).

As with ratings of bias, accuracy and professionalism, these evaluations rose sharply following the terrorist attacks and for the most part have since returned to their pre-Sept. 11 levels. One exception is that 62% today describe news organizations as “highly professional,” up from roughly 50% a year ago and before the terrorist attacks. That is still below the 73% who rated the press as professional in the wake of 9/11.

Public ratings of press patriotism have also improved marginally since before the terrorist attacks. Today, 51% say news organizations stand up for America, compared with 33% who say the press is too critical of America. While this is well below the mark registered in November 2001, when the public saw the press standing up for America by four-to-one (69%-17%), it is more favorable than public evaluations of the press before the attacks.

By nearly two-to-one (52%-28%) Americans today say the press does more to protect democracy than to hurt democracy. This also is slightly more favorable than public perceptions before the attacks.

Wary of Press Criticism of Military

Despite widespread criticism of the press on a number of fronts, Americans remain largely supportive of the media’s role as a political watchdog. Most (54%) say that by criticizing political leaders, news organizations most often prevent them from doing wrong. Just 29% say media criticism gets in the way of political leaders doing their jobs.

There is clearly a partisan element to this viewpoint, which has changed with presidential administrations. In February 1999, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to see watchdog journalism as an impediment to governance (by 35% to 24%). Today, these figures are reversed, as 39% of Republicans say press criticism keeps political leaders from doing their jobs, while just 27% of Democrats agree.

While the public’s overall commitment to watchdog journalism remains solid, views of press scrutiny of the military have changed substantially. Today, Americans are divided over whether press criticism of the military serves to keep the nation militarily prepared (45%) or to weaken the country’s defenses (43%). This represents increasing concern about the role of the press especially when compared with evaluations after the first Persian Gulf War. In March 1991, the public by two-to-one (59%-28%) said press criticism of the military was a good thing.

In particular, Republicans have become increasingly concerned over media criticism of the military. In 1985, fewer than half of Republicans (40%) said such criticism weakened the nation’s defenses and following the first Gulf War that number declined to 34%. In the current survey, 63% of Republicans say press criticism of the military undermines the nation’s defenses. Democratic views have shown far less change, so the partisan gap over this issue has more than tripled since 1991 (from 10 points to 34 points).

Media’s Increasing Influence

By a 55% to 29% margin, most Americans say the media’s influence is growing, not decreasing. This is a view most Americans have held consistently since the mid-1980s. Interestingly, younger people are most likely to see media influence as increasing. Among those under age 30, media influence is seen as growing rather than declining by more than two-to-one (61% to 24%). But people age 65 and older are divided (41% see influence growing, 37% declining).

Fox News Viewers Stand Out

While the general public is divided over whether criticism of the military weakens the nation’s defenses, Fox News viewers believe this is the case by nearly two-to-one (60% to 33%). Fox News viewers are also far more likely to say that the press is too critical of the Bush administration (38% vs. 25% general public). On both of these issues, people who get most of their news from the networks or CNN hold views roughly comparable to the nation as a whole.

The perception of media bias is much stronger among the Fox News audience than other television audiences. Fully 76% of Fox News viewers say the press tends to favor one side in covering social and political issues, compared with 67% of CNN viewers and 60% of network news viewers. The difference becomes even more stark in evaluations of the media’s ideological bias. Fully two-thirds (66%) of Fox News viewers say the press is liberal, compared with 54% of the network news audience and just 47% of CNN viewers. The CNN audience is more than twice as likely to see a conservative bias in the media (33%) than is the Fox audience (14%).

Too Much Hillary

The public is largely satisfied with the amount of attention the media has given to developments in Iraq (60% right amount) and the Middle East (59%). But most Americans (55%) say that the press is devoting too much coverage to the publication of Hillary Clinton’s memoir, and a sizable minority (39%) says the same about coverage of the Laci Peterson murder.

More than two-thirds of Republicans (68%) and nearly as many independents (61%) say the press has over covered Clinton’s book. Democrats are less likely to express that opinion; still, a plurality of Democrats (40%) thinks the book has gotten too much media attention.

College graduates and people living in the West are more likely than others to say there has been too much coverage of the Peterson case. (Laci Peterson’s husband Scott, who has been charged in the murder, is on trial near San Francisco.) Pluralities of those who get most of their news from cable ­ both CNN and Fox ­ say the case has been over covered (half of Fox viewers, 44% of CNN viewers). Somewhat fewer viewers of network news outlets believe the story has gotten too much attention (38%).

The public is divided, along partisan and ideological lines, over the amount of press coverage of the controversy over the failure to find Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. A plurality of Americans feels the amount of coverage has been appropriate, while 30% say there has been too much coverage and nearly a quarter (24%) believe there has been too little coverage of this story. Roughly twice as many Republicans as Democrats say the story has gotten too much coverage (40% vs. 21%).

Positive Ratings for Specific Stories

People who closely follow these stories generally give news organizations good marks for the quality ­ as opposed to the amount ­ of that coverage. This is the case even for coverage of Hillary Clinton’s book. Only about one-in-five Americans closely followed that story (22%), but most of those who did gave a favorable rating to the coverage (64% excellent or good).

Attitudes toward coverage of the Iraqi weapons story are an exception to this pattern. More than six-in-ten Americans followed this story at least fairly closely, and that group is almost evenly divided in its evaluation of the coverage (50% good or excellent/48% fair or poor). Democrats are more likely than Republicans to fault this coverage, though sizable numbers in both parties are critical (56% of Democrats, 39% of Republicans).