June 8, 2004

News Audiences Increasingly Politicized

V. Media Credibility Declines

Credibility ratings for the major broadcast and cable television outlets have fallen somewhat in recent years, due in large part to increased cynicism toward the media on the part of Republicans and conservatives. CNN no longer enjoys the top spot as the most credible TV news source; it is now in a statistical tie with CBS’s 60 Minutes.

From 1996 to 2002, CNN was viewed as the most believable broadcast or cable outlet, but its ratings have fallen gradually over time. Today 32% of those able to rate CNN say they can believe all or most of what they see on the cable network. This is down from 37% is 2002, 39% in 2000, and a high of 42% in 1998. Ratings for 60 Minutes have remained relatively stable over that period, and today 33% of those who can rate it find the TV news magazine highly credible.

Just as CNN’s credibility ratings have fallen, ratings for the major broadcast networks have declined as well. NBC News, ABC News and CBS News are rated about equally in terms of believability by the public. Among those able to rate NBC News, 24% find the network highly credible, down from a high of 30% in 1998. ABC News has followed an similar pattern: 24% view it as highly believable, compared with 31% in 1996. And CBS News has moved from 32% who saw it as believable in 1996 to 24% today.

Ratings for the Fox News Channel have remained relatively stable in recent years: 25% now say they can believe all or most of what they see on Fox, which is virtually the same as the cable network’s rating in 2000 (26%). At the same time, ratings for the cable network MSNBC have fallen somewhat 22% now view MSNBC as highly credible vs. 28% in 2000. The public has become more familiar with each of these cable news channels in recent years. In 2002, 21% of the public said they did not know enough about the Fox News Channel to give it a rating, compared with 14% today. Similarly, 23% were unable to rate MSNBC in 2002, and now 16% fall into that category.

C-SPAN’s visibility also has increased. In 2002, 39% said they could not rate C-SPAN in terms of believability; that has dropped to 27%. Roughly a quarter of those able to rate C-SPAN (27%) say it is highly believable, compared with 30% two years ago.

Credibility ratings for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer have dropped marginally in recent years. Among those able to rate the show, 23% see it as highly credible. This is down somewhat from 29% in 1998 and 26% in 2002. NPR is viewed as highly credible by an equal proportion of those able to give a rating (23%). This figure is unchanged from 2002.

Wall Street Journal Declines

A similar pattern of waning credibility can be seen for print news outlets. The changes have not been dramatic, but there have been modest shifts downward across a broad range of print sources. Two news organization share the top spot in terms of print news credibility. The weekly news magazine U.S. News & World Report and the Wall Street Journal are viewed as highly credible by 24% of those who are able to rate them.

In previous polls, the Wall Street Journal stood well above the rest of the pack, but that is no longer the case. Ratings for the Journal have plummeted in recent years. In 1998 and 2000, 41% of those able to rate it said they could believe all or most of what they read in the Wall Street Journal. That number fell to 33% in 2002 and now stands at 24%.

Most of the other print sources tested in the poll receive similar ratings for believability. Time Magazine is viewed as highly believable by 22% of people familiar enough to rate it, and the New York Times gets a 21% rating. Newsweek and USA Today get a high rating from 19%; that is also the rating respondents give to their own daily paper. The Associated Press is viewed as highly credible by 18% of Americans who can rate it.

Ratings for Time, Newsweek and USA Today have fallen somewhat in recent years. Ratings for local daily newspapers have fallen more sharply. In 1998, roughly three-in-ten (29%) of those able to rate their local newspaper said they could believe all or most of what it said. That has declined to 19% in the current survey.

Entertainment and tabloid news sources receive the lowest ratings overall. Just 7% of those who can rate it say they can believe all or most of what they read in People Magazine, and even fewer (5%) find the National Enquirer highly believable.

Partisan Divisions Drive Credibility Slump

The falloff in credibility for these news sources is linked to a growing partisan tilt in the ratings. Republicans have traditionally viewed the overall media more skeptically than Democrats and this has long translated into lower credibility ratings from Republicans for most news sources.

But Republicans have become even more negative about the media’s believability, widening the partisan gaps and driving down the overall ratings of several major news organizations. In 1998, 44% of Democrats and 39% of Republicans gave CNN very high ratings for believability. By 2002, the partisan gap had widened significantly: 45% of Democrats and 32% of Republicans gave CNN the highest rating. In the current survey, CNN’s rating among Democrats remains at 45%, while falling further among Republicans (to 26%).

More surprising is the sharp decline among members of both parties but especially Republicans in ratings for the Wall Street Journal. In 1998, Republicans were more trusting than Democrats of the Wall Street Journal by a margin of 48% to 42%. That was still the case in 2002 when 35% of Republicans and 29% of Democrats gave the Journal a very high rating for believability. Today, Democrats are actually more trusting of the Journal 29% give it a high rating vs. 23% of Republicans.

Ratings for the NewsHour and the Associated Press also have changed dramatically among Republicans. As recently as two years ago, fairly comparable percentages of Democrats (28%) and Republicans (24%) gave high credibility ratings to the PBS news program. Today, about the same proportion of Democrats (29%) give the NewsHour high marks for believability, compared with only 12% of Republicans.

Even C-SPAN, the non-profit, public affairs network has seen its ratings become more politicized. In 1998, Republicans were slightly more likely than Democrats to view C-SPAN as highly believable. By 2000, the balance of opinion had shifted, though Republicans and Democrats still had fairly similar views about C-SPAN. Today significantly more Democrats than Republicans give C-SPAN high marks for believability (36% vs. 23%, respectively).

Credibility ratings for the major news networks have not changed as dramatically in recent years, largely because they have long been divided along partisan lines. In the case of NBC News, the partisan gap is as large as it was in 1998 (13 points), and partisan differences in evaluations of ABC News have grown only marginally. But ratings for CBS News have become more partisan: currently, 34% of Democrats and just 15% of Republicans view CBS News as highly credible. The network’s rating among Democrats is about the same as it was six years ago (33% in 1998), while its credibility among Republicans has fallen eight points (from 23%).

Opinions of the believability of Time and Newsweek also have become more partisan. In 1998, 34% of Democrats vs. 23% of Republicans gave Time a high believability rating. Today, 30% of Democrats and 15% of Republicans view Time as highly believable. A similar pattern can be seen for Newsweek.

Fox Leads Among Reps, CNN Among Dems

As a consequence of the increasing partisanship, the most trusted news sources for Democrats, Republicans and independents vary widely. Three news organizations, CNN, 60 Minutes and C-SPAN make the list of the most trusted sources for all three groups.

The Republicans’ most trusted source is the Fox News Channel, which does not appear in the top six for either Democrats or independents. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal and local television news are among the most trusted sources for Republicans, but are not among the Democrats’ top picks.

Democrats find ABC News, CBS News and NPR highly believable. Neither Republicans nor independents place these sources in their top tier of credible news sources. For independents, U.S. News & World Report, NBC News and the NewsHour are among the most trusted news sources. But none of these news organizations make the Republicans’ or Democrats’ lists of most believable sources.