May 23, 2004

Bottom-Line Pressures Now Hurting Coverage, Say Journalists

II. Covering the President and the Campaign

Many journalists today feel that news media has lost its critical edge ­ especially when it comes to coverage of the Bush administration. Reporters and editors in national news organizations, in particular, feel the press has gone too easy on the Bush administration. Moreover, the perception that news organizations have gone soft is not confined to attitudes about coverage of Bush. An increasing number of both national and local journalists feel the traditional criticism of the press as too cynical is no longer valid. Indeed, on both the national and local level, more fault the press for being too timid than too cynical.

The journalists surveyed give middling ratings to national news coverage of Bush’s presidency. A narrow majority of national journalists (53%) give the coverage a grade of A or B; local journalists are far less generous in their grading of how their colleagues in national news organizations have covered Bush (43% A or B). In a similar survey in 1995, national journalists, in particular, offered more positive opinions of coverage of the Clinton administration (65% A or B).

The journalists are somewhat more positive in their assessments of the presidential campaign. A majority of national journalists (56%) say coverage of the campaign has been better than coverage of the 2000 campaign. Local journalists are more divided: 46% say coverage of the current campaign is better than in 2000, while 34% say it is worse.

Differences Over Bush Coverage

Solid majorities of national print and TV journalists, as well as Internet journalists, say the media has not been critical enough in its coverage of the administration. A smaller plurality of local print journalists agree (46%).

But local television journalists, on balance, feel the coverage of the Bush administration has been fair. A plurality of this group (44%) believes the coverage has been fair; moreover, nearly as many say coverage has been too critical of the administration (25%) as say it has been not critical enough (28%).

Ideological Divisions

Much has been made of the public’s ideological divisions in this election year, but journalists also are divided along ideological lines over several issues, including press coverage of the Bush administration. Liberals who work in national and local news organizations overwhelmingly feel the press has not been critical enough of the Bush administration. Roughly two-thirds of liberal journalists (68%) express that view, compared with 28% who say coverage has been fair and 3% who believe the press has been too critical of the administration.

Self-described moderates offer a mixed judgment of the Bush coverage ­ about the same percentages say it has not been critical enough (44%) and fair (43%). But most conservatives (53%) think the press has been too critical of the administration, compared with 30% who view it as fair and 17% who think it has been too critical.

Beyond Bush: Cynicism Concerns Decline

In the 1999 survey, narrow majorities of both national (53%) and local (51%) journalists agreed that the statement, “the press is too cynical,” represented a valid criticism of news organizations.

But there has been a dramatic decline in the percentage of national and local journalists who feel the press can be legitimately criticized for excessive cynicism. Just 37% of national journalists and only slightly more local journalists (40%) view the press as too cynical. This pattern is even more apparent among Internet journalists: 24% view the press as too cynical, compared with 48% five years ago.

Internet journalists, in particular, believe that the press can be faulted for being too timid rather than too cynical (56% too timid vs. 24% too cynical). Journalists working at national news organizations agree (47% vs. 37%). But local journalists are split: 42% view the press as too timid, 40% too cynical.

Ideological Coverage ­ Valid Criticism?

Overall, news people are divided over whether journalists today too often let their own ideological views show in their reporting. Similar percentages of national (45%) and local (43%) journalists view this as a valid criticism.

But local executives, in particular, approach this issue very differently. Roughly seven-in-ten local news executives (73%) say coverage too often reflects a journalist’s ideology; roughly six-in-ten national news executives (62%) agree that this is not a valid criticism of the press.

By comparison, there is broad agreement across the spectrum of reporters, managers and executives that is a bad thing if news organizations take a “decidedly” ideological point of view in their coverage of the news. Fully 72% of national journalists and 74% of local journalists have a negative view of news organizations taking a strongly ideological stance in their coverage.

Fox’s Outsized Impact

Most national and local journalists do not believe any national daily news organization is “especially liberal” in its news coverage. Roughly six-in-ten in both groups (62% national/59% local) say no national daily news organization strikes them as particularly liberal in its coverage. Among the minority that names a specific news organization as being especially liberal, the New York Times was mentioned most frequently (20% national/17% local).

By contrast, solid majorities of both national and local journalists say there is an organization that they think is especially conservative ­ and for most the organization that comes to mind is Fox News Channel. Fully 69% of national journalists cited Fox News Channel as especially conservative in its coverage. Fewer local journalists (42%) mentioned Fox; still, a much higher percentage of local journalists named Fox than any other single news organization, conservative or liberal.

Roughly two-thirds of self-described conservatives (68%) could identify a specific news organization that is especially liberal, and the same number (68%) could name a news organization that is “especially conservative.” But moderates and liberals could identify conservative news organizations far more often than liberal ones. Roughly three-quarters of liberals (74%) and a majority of moderates (56%) say they couldn’t think of any news organization that is especially liberal.